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 other spring reissue offering, The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, also features a former espionage operative as its protagonist. Lucifer Dye, who grew up in a Shanghai whorehouse, is currently out of work, which makes him a perfect candidate to form an alliance with an ex–call girl for some wheeling and dealing in the Gulf Coast city of Swankton. Fools is another small-town corruption novel, and the book reads like a raucous rehearsal for Briarpatch, but it’s not as good. The novel does, however, contain one unforgettable character, the hard-boiled ex–police chief Homer Necessary, who has one brown eye and one blue eye. For Thomas, the constabulary are, like intelligence agents, fallible, buffoonlike humans.
Ross’ sly and subversive work can be read as a refutation of Edmund Wilson’s essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?,” which dismisses crime writers as second-class citizens of the literary realm, mere puzzle makers. Beneath the comedy, Ross was always deadly serious. But virtually all suspense authors suffer moments of defensiveness over Wilson’s rejection, and I assume that the need for validation was another reason Ross was attracted to the International Association of Crime Writers, which gave a tony veneer to our profession. (It also provided for a fair amount of juicy research.) The association lost some of its allure after the Cold War ended, so Ross and I both withdrew from it somewhat, although we remained friends.
My last memories of him come from the aftermath of the Great Malibu Fire of 1993, when his house burned to the ground and he hurried home to save the half-finished manuscript of his then–work in progress — Ah, Treachery!— and one copy of each of his novels. “I’ve written too many books!” his wife, Rosalie, told me he yelled out with characteristic irony as he stuffed them in a plastic bag. Everything else was lost, including all his manuscripts, the many editions and translations of his works, and his trusted portable Adler typewriter. Ross abjured computers.
A few days later he turned up at my house in the Hollywood Hills, looking a bit shell-shocked but not as bad as one would expect for someone who was essentially homeless. Not long after that, he moved into a rental in Point Dume and was back to work full force, as if nothing had happened, while his house was being rebuilt. This unflappability was a trait of his fictional characters, but must have come as well from the obvious strength of his and Rosalie’s relationship. Their friendship had begun about 25 years before in D.C. when Rosalie worked as a librarian at the Library of Congress and Ross, already writing full time, would come in to do research. After a short courtship, they married and headed for California, winding up in Malibu after only one day of house hunting and staying there permanently. (Ross wrote some of his most evocative prose, about the pelicans in Paradise Cove, in Chinaman’s Chance.) They became mainstays in the local Democratic Club. In fact politics and liberalism suffused Ross’ persona so deeply that, if he were the average demographic, C-SPAN would have been America’s number-one network and The Nationits most popular magazine. Sometimes I thought that, for all his superficial cynicism and sardonic wit, he was the most idealistic person I knew. And it was that idealism that fueled his work.
I visited Ross for the last time after he had moved back into the house. His study and the living room were lined with new built-in shelves already being filled with the missing editions sent by fans and even the occasional publisher. Ross was in a good mood. Ah, Treachery! was completed, and he was back in his old digs again. But it wasn’t to last. He was dead of lung cancer within months. He was 69.
When I returned to the house a few weeks ago to talk with Rosalie, it was basically unchanged. More books were filling those shelves, including new foreign translations of Ross’ work. His desk in the study was undisturbed, as if he were about to sit down to work that day, the same framed New Yorker cartoon on the wall nearby. It showed an author behind his typewriter, looking out through his window in wan bemusement at ordinary men on their way to work. “Have a nice day,” he was saying to them.
“Ross had incredible concentration,” Rosalie told me. “He could answer the phone while working. In the morning he’d have coffee, read the paper and say, ‘I’m off,’ and walk into the next room and shut the door. I’d bring him lunch at his desk at 12. At 2 he would come out and say, ‘I can’t do any more.’”
“What would he do for the rest of the day?”
“Read. Or go to the movies. Ross always said one of the benefits of a writer’s life was you could go to the movies in the afternoon. One time a woman asked me what it was like being married to a writer,” Rosalie continued. “I told her, ‘Very quiet.’”