By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The place to look for clues to the deepest identity of most novelists is in their works, and, in Thomas’ case, there is great pleasure in the search because even the least successful of his thrillers are compulsively entertaining. For a few years many were out of print, but we now have the handsome new set of trade paperbacks being published by St. Martin’s Press. The series has begun with four books: Out on the Rim and the Edgar Award–winning Briarpatch, out last winter; The Cold War Swap and the aforementioned The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, this spring. Twenty more are scheduled, including several written under Ross’ pseudonym Oliver Bleeck. All will have introductions by noted contemporary crime writers such as Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block. ‰
Rim was the first Thomas novel I read after we had met, and I read it — as you do when, in that rare case, you know the author — as if he were whispering the text in my ear. The book is set in the Philippines, a place Ross knew well, having served there in World War II and returned in the wake of the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos. Its characters, too, are familiar: the con man “Otherguy” Overby, that pretender to the Chinese throne, Artie Wu, and his partner, Quincy Durant. They are the engaging protagonists of Chinaman’s Chance, among Ross’ most popular books (his novels were consistent-, not best-sellers), and re-appear once again in 1992’s Voodoo, Ltd.
Out on the Rimis a darkly comic story of greedy plotters after the fall of a dictator and would seem an apt cautionary tale for our times. But since we are now living through a period of far greater chicanery of this type (with myriad scalawags looting the Iraqi museums of all sorts of Sumerian treasures, not to mention a billion dollars in cash lifted from a state bank), the book may have lost some of its original sting. This weakening by the onrush of events is a problem endemic to political crime fiction. Only the most sharply accurate, such as le CarrÃ©’s Smiley stories, seem to be able to withstand this — even Greene’s The Quiet American felt passÃ© in its latest film avatar.
Being dated is not a problem for Briarpatch, one of the best, most coruscating portraits of small-town American life and politics since Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren. This book shows why Ross is getting what most authors dream of and few merit: the posthumous publication of his work. Briarpatch is a classic of the “corrupt town” genre. Here we have the America of Ross’ youth, with Texas standing in for his native Oklahoma. A man, Ben Dill, returns home to investigate the car-bombing murder of his sister, who happened to be the local homicide detective — and then the complications set in. The book is populated with the kind of petit-bourgeois American graspers you find in Dodsworthand Babbitt, but morphed in a way that, paradoxically, is at once more nastily comic and strangely forgiving than Lewis.
Ross has a way of making you despise his villains while you see yourself in them and laugh. His heroes are always blemished and frequently corrupt. Ben Dill is no Gary Cooper riding into a Texas cesspool to clean it up. He’s just some unemployed schmuck in D.C. with five grand in the bank and a used Volkswagen, trying to figure out what to do with his life after his wife has left him. (Speaking of Cooper, this book would have made a great movie but, like the rest of Ross’ works, has as yet not reached the screen. Their complex plots seem to have eluded adaptation.)
This spring’s first offering, The Cold War Swap, is actually Ross’ first novel, which won the Best First Novel Edgar Award back in 1967 (three firsts!). Like Raymond Chandler, he began writing relatively late in life and composed the book when he was 40. The details of its creation should raise the hair on the neck of any literary aspirant and put the lie to one of the great clichÃ©s: It’s 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. Wrong. Inspiration is more important. If you don’t have that spark, forget it. You can work for 50 years and produce nothing. Ross Thomas, having never even particularly thought about writing novels, was between jobs and just sat down and wrote one — in six weeks. Then he wrapped it up in brown paper and sent it off to a publisher, who accepted it — in two weeks. No wonder he decided to do a couple of dozen more.
The results of this quick labor hold up pretty well for a book with one of the more shopworn Cold War plots: scientists trapped behind the Iron Curtain. What makes it work, of course, are the originality and precision of character and setting, in this case that very Bonn where Ross had done time as a (ahem) “diplomatic correspondent for the Armed Forces Network.” Here for the first time we meet Ross’ other series characters, saloonkeeper “Mac” McCorkle and the erratic onetime OSS agent Mike Padillo, who team up to get a pair of defectors through Checkpoint Charlie. Their scenes with Cook Baker, a Hunter S. Thompson type, are drop-dead funny. The book also demonstrates that from the outset Ross had a cynical, less heroic view of spying than even le CarrÃ©, as if the “great game” itself was just another pathetic human folly, a series of comic pratfalls almost out of Abbott & Costello. This is Ross’ primary insight and his contribution to the genre. Many have followed in his footsteps, but few, as is usually the case, have executed it so well. One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that many of these writers came to their lampoons of spying from a political/literary perspective and without the firsthand knowledge that Ross had.