Flashback: AN APPRECIATION OF ROSS THOMAS

This article originally appeared in issue 4 of Crimespree.

If someone asks me who my all-time favorite crime writer is, usually I demur and sheepishly try to evade the question. “Too many to list,” is one answer I use. “If I narrowed it down to one, I’d have a lot of writer friends who’d get mad at me,” is another. But if the pressure’s really on, or if I’m stuck on a desert island with only the complete works of one writer to entertain me, then my choice would have to be Ross Thomas (1926-1995), the author of twenty novels under his own name (plus five using the nom de plume of Oliver Bleeck.) I haven’t read all of his books yet—I’m trying to ration myself—but so far, I’ve yet to be disappointed and usually end up surprised anew at just how good a writer he was. There are so many reasons, all of which I’ll get into in the rest of this piece, but if I had to pick one, it would be his uncanny ability to use exactly the right phrase, the right word, for the right situation.

My favorite example of Thomas’s talent in that regard occurs in his third novel, Cast a Yellow Shadow (1967). It’s also the second installment (after the Edgar award-winning The Cold War Swap) starring “Mac” McCorkle and Michael Padillo, a pair of saloon-owners who by design (since Padillo’s an operative for a number of shady organizations) or by accident (as McCorkle keeps getting mixed up in Padillo’s messes) end up involved with a wide variety of nefarious characters, less-than-above-board situations and other problems in Berlin, Washington and beyond. Shadow centers around the kidnapping of McCorkle’s wife Friedl, and in typical Thomas fashion, there are plot twists galore and no one can be trusted. The boys rescue a young lass from peril and shelter her for the night. The next morning, McCorkle discreetly inquires as to what Padillo was up to the night before:

“She still asleep?”
“I think so.”
“How’s your side?”
“Stiff.”
“How was the couch?”
“I wouldn’t know.”

Without ever becoming explicit or tawdry, Thomas conveys with dry wit and subtlety what has just transpired. I’ve read that exchange countless times and my jaw never fails to drop each time at how utterly economical it is. The hallmark of a Ross Thomas novel is that no word is ever wasted, and all the fat has been ruthlessly trimmed away, leaving only the essentials: smart dialogue, a plot that twists and turns every which way, and appealing characters that can never, ever be trusted.

How did he write novels like these? A lot, unsurprisingly, has to do with his background. Thomas was born in 1926 in a small town in Oklahoma, an experience that would inform several of his best-known works, including Briarpatch (1984), which won him his second Edgar Award. His was not the happiest of childhoods, and his ambivalence about growing up in a rural town shows in his fictional re-imagining. A glimpse of such ambivalence can be seen through the eyes of the main character, Ben Dill, as he returns home for the first time in ten years and describes the grid-like structure in so perfunctory a fashion as to mock it:

“Dill’s native city, like most American cities, was laid out on a grid. The streets that ran east and west were numbered. Those that ran north and south were named, many after pioneer real estate speculators, and the rest after states, Civil War generals (both Union and Confederate), a governor or two, and a handful of mayors whose administrations were thought to have been reasonably free of graft.

But as the city grew, imagination had faltered, and the newer north-south streets were named after trees (Pine, Maple, Oak, Birch and so on). When the trees were at last exhausted—ending with Eucalyptus for some reason—the names of presidents had been brought into play. These expired with Nixon Avenue a far, far 231 blocks west of the city’s main street, which, not surprisingly, was called Main Street. Main’s principal intersecting thoroughfare was, inevitably, Broadway.”

Thomas spent his formative years in the Army and later bounced around the US and abroad as a reporter, a political strategist, speechwriter, and civil servant. He did the kind of jobs that were on the fringes, but still allowed him to amass a tremendous amount of knowledge about government, politics, labor unions and other professions that recur over and over again in his work. But they are also the kind of jobs that could be seen as perfect cover for something more covert; no wonder Thomas was often assumed to be a spy.

Whether he was or wasn’t is a riddle that remains to this day; when Roger Simon, writing his own appreciation of his old friend for the LA Weekly last spring, asked Thomas’s widow the question, she smiled and replied “Not that he ever told me.” I’ve never believed the theory because it’s entirely possible to work in government jobs and be cleared at top-secret levels, thus having access to a wealth of classified information, without actually having to spy on other people to get it. But there’s no doubt that the swirl of rumor contributed to the Thomas mystique.

It’s a mystique that began rather late and rather dramatically; the famous story is that one day, at the age of forty, he simply decided to write a novel. Six weeks later the manuscript was done, and within months, The Cold War Swap was published to great acclaim Though Thomas never wrote long-running series, McCorkle and Padillo recurred three more times, including the aforementioned Shadow, The Backup Men (1971), and Twilight at Mac’s Place (1990), which revisited them as older men with a slower step and a more deliberate manner but possessing the same cunning and intelligence that would get them out of whatever intrigue had landed them in hot water in the first place. But right from the start, Thomas had hit on a winning formula: the unreliably appealing characters, a look at the backrooms and double-dealings of people working the edges of politics and policy, and the plot that never found a twist it couldn’t use.

Many of Thomas’s fans remark upon the plots, because truly, they zig and zag and keep the reader guessing. But where other writers may fall back on manipulation and last-second devices, Thomas hardly ever did. His plots were fundamentally sound, whether he wrote a traditional mystery (such as Briarpatch) or a more politically-minded thriller (like one of my personal favorites, 1983’s Missionary Stew, whose election-based dealings seem all the more appropriate with the recent nastiness that was 2004.) Even when the stories veered into turbulent waters, like the sprawling semi-epic The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970) which alternates flashbacks to Shanghai with the methodical corruption of a small town, Thomas never loses command, making intricate plots seem less complex than they really were. A Ross Thomas novel is full of unexpected turns, but is never too difficult to follow. The fun, rather, is to keep track of who’s double-crossing who and who will end up the ultimate winner—if there can be such a thing.

Though his works were obviously plot-driven, Thomas never sacrificed character development. If he did, how could he have been responsible for memorable creations like McCorkle and Padillo, as well as his other famous duo, the jovial Arthur Case Wu and his hotheaded partner, Quincy “That F**king” Durant? First introduced in Chinaman’s Chance (1978), which may be Thomas’s most well-known book, Wu and Durant took the art of the con to dizzying heights but never sacrificed their peculiar selves—scenes where Wu interacted with his young daughters are even more of a hoot because he’s so normal a family man—but just happens to be a professional criminal.

Thomas never used a female protagonist, but the supporting players had distinct personalities created in a few small strokes. Take Felicity, Ben Dill’s sister, whose murder spurs him to return to Briarpatch to investigate. Even though she’s dead throughout the entire book, Thomas describes a thoughtful, bright, up-and-coming homicide detective who, had she lived, would have really made something of herself. She’s so likeable that it’s a pity she can’t still be alive. Other memorable female characters include Barbara Huckins, the lady mayor of The Fourth Durango (1989) who is so predatory as to make Lady Macbeth seem tame by comparison, and Friedl, McCorkle’s German journalist wife, who’s never more than a bit part but makes the most of her appearances with her spirit and charm.

Perhaps that’s the best word to describe a Ross Thomas book: they are spirited. Even when relentlessly cynical and almost too pragmatic for their own good, there’s an underlying liveliness and—dare I say it?—overall optimism that carries the momentum forward. Thomas was a master at making his books move; to do so, he had to infect them with some sort of spirit. His keen observations and eye for detail were on display from beginning till the very end, with 1994’s Ah, Treachery! (Taken from one of Thomas’s greatest lines: “Ah, treachery! One of history’s favorite shortcuts.”)

It remains a great shame that he couldn’t live longer, and that his life was cut short by cancer in 1995. With the political climate being so chaotic, I often ask myself “What Would Ross Thomas Do?” It’s a difficult question to answer, but I daresay he’d have quite a lot of material for several more novels. But since we can’t have future works, we’ll have to content ourselves with the past. Starting in December 2002, St. Martin’s Press began reissuing some of Thomas’s finest gems. It’s my greatest hope they’ll get to all 25 books, but unfortunately, it looks like the program will be cut short long before completion: no other books are scheduled for reissue beyond January 2005, when Chinaman’s Chance is republished.

So the next time you’re in a bookshop, treat yourself to one of the finest writers ever to take the pen and chronicle his life and times and the politics of his day, all wrapped up in the highest of entertainment. Ross Thomas was like no one else that came before him and followed suit. And is he ever missed.

ROSS THOMAS’S BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Standalone novels:
The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967)
The Singapore Wink (1969)
The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (1970)
The Pork Choppers (1972)
If You Can’t Be Good (1973)
The Money Harvest (1975)
Yellow Dog Contract (1976)
The Eighth Dwarf (1979)
The Mordida Man (1981)
Missionary Stew (1983)
Briarpatch (1984)
The Fourth Durango (1989)
Ah, Treachery! (1994)
McCorkle & Padillo Novels:
The Cold War Swap (1966)
Cast A Yellow Shadow (1967)
The Backup Men (1971)
Twilight At Mac’s Place (1990)
Wu & Durant Novels
Chinaman’s Chance (1978)
Out on the Rim (1987)
Voodoo, Ltd. (1992)
Written As Oliver Bleeck, starring Phillip St. Ives:
The Brass Go-Between (1969)
The Procane Chronicle (1971)
Protocol for A Kidnapping (1972)
The Highbinders (1973)
No Questions Asked (1976)

Sarah Weiman