Ross Thomas: Are The Fools in Town Are Still On Our Side?
It’s not uncommon these days to stumble across the odd mainstream broadsheet critic in the process of travelling downmarket to extol the merits of some crime writer they’ve recently discovered. Perhaps I’ve grown a bit cynical, but whenever I come across such an article I can’t help myself from thinking that the newly anointed is close to reaching his or her sell-by date. At the same time, as any avid reader of the genre knows, outside the realm of journalistic hype there exists any number of excellent noirists who have been forgotten or, for one reason or another, remain unrecognised. For instance, there’s 1950s pulpist Gil Brewer, and, in recent years, Loren Estleman. And what about Jim Nisbet? Then there’s Ross Thomas, surely one of the best crime writers of the last thirty years. There can’t be many crime novels better than his 1978 Chinaman’s Chance. Having written some twenty-five books, including five under his well-chosen nom-de-plume Oliver Bleeck, Thomas, even at his worst, is no less interesting than Elmore Leonard, though not nearly so self-conscious or style-obsessed.
Born in the 1926 in Oklahoma, Thomas cut across social and political classes, writing with equal ease about those at the top or at the bottom of society’s ladder. So class-ridden are some of his characters that they appear to have leapt from the pages of a British spy novel smack into the rarefied atmosphere of Malibu, California, Washington D.C., small-town America, or some foreign country unfortunate enough to have been infiltrated, whether covertly or overtly, by U.S. advisors and their camp followers. Other Thomas characters could be described as self-made, raised in the midst of the American nightmare and schooled in cheap bars and shady deals. An old-school liberal with a provocative CV, Thomas was, of course, well-qualified to write about political intrigue and the trickle-down theory of crime, by which I mean the notion that corruption starts at the top of the culture and floats downwards, moving, as one particular Thomasite put it, from the suites to the streets.
But at some point during the 1990s, not long before his death, Thomas seems to have fallen out of favour. It’s hard to understand why. After all, his books always sold reasonably well. Moreover, he had been a favourite of such diverse readers as John D. MacDonald, Eric Ambler, Bill Clinton, and that bifurcated rightwing cultural critic, Lynne Cheney, whose worse-half happens be to be the US vice president. And didn’t Stephen King, having stated that Thomas was “the Jane Austen of the political espionage story,” once compare him favourably to Don DeLillo? I sometimes wonder if Thomas’s interregnum in literary Siberia had something to do with the publishing industry and all those dark and reality-obsessed narratives that began to appear in the 1990s, which, in many case, read more like reportage than fiction. Stylistically free and easy, Thomas swung more in the direction of, on the one hand, well-structured and humorous plots, and, on the other, eccentric and unpredictable characters, regardless of whether they held down jobs as diplomats, spies, politicians, activists, lobbyists, cops, or con artists. Not only did Thomas cover a wide range of criminal types, but he would punctuate his work with references to political finagling, trade union machinations, and the effect of various social movements. He once said, “I weave historical facts and observation… What is eavesdropping to others is research to the novelist.” Ross Thomas was certainly no idiot. And maybe that too counted against him.
So readable is Thomas that you’d think he’d spent a lifetime honing his literary chops. But, like Raymond Chandler, Thomas began writing at a relatively late age. In fact, The Cold War Swap, which won an Edgar for Best First Novel in 1967, was written when Thomas was over forty years old. In-between jobs, and having never previously thought about writing fiction, he gave himself six weeks to churn out a book. After finishing it, he sent the manuscript off to a publisher and within two weeks it was accepted for publication. Given its plot, which revolves around scientists trapped behind the Iron Curtain, The Cold War Swap holds up quite well. This is largely due to the book’s setting, Bonn, where Thomas had been based while working as a diplomatic correspondent for the Armed Forces Network, and his skin-tight characterisations, including his two protagonists, saloonkeeper “Mac” McCorkle and the erratic onetime OSS agent Mike Padillo, who team up to get a pair of defectors through Checkpoint Charlie. Like other Thomas protagonists, they resurface in later novels. But even in the early stages of his literary career, Thomas had a more cynical and less heroic view of spying than Eric Ambler, or, more recently, Alan Furst. As far as Thomas was concerned, spying is just one more pathetic folly, as comic as it is dangerous. It could be said that Thomas believed that espionage was no different than any other trade, nothing more or less than something that different sorts of people do with varying levels of skill and dedication.
Anyone who reads Thomas with any attention soon realises that he is extremely au courant with the world of spookdom This invariably leads to the question: was Ross Thomas, in fact, a spy? Had he been, he would have been part of that honourable tradition of novel-writing spies, one that includes Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and John Le Carré. And his biographical details give plenty of room for speculation After serving as a U.S. infantryman in the Philippines during the Second World War, Thomas finished his studies at the University of Oklahoma, then became a public relations operative for the National Farmers Union and then VISTA, the latter culminating in his only non-fiction book, Warriors for the Poor: The Story of VISTA. Then he worked as the representative of Patrick Dolan and Associates Ltd in Nigeria, where he became the campaign organiser for tribal chief, Obafemi Awololo, in his efforts to become Nigeria’s first post-colonial Prime Minister. He would later use Nigeria as a setting for his novel The Seersucker Whipshaw. After Nigeria, Thomas was employed as a political consultant in Washington, followed by a stint as a diplomatic correspondent in Bonn. He also put in stints as a reporter in Cajun country as well as Washington DC, and as chief strategist for two ageing trade union presidents seeking re-election. In 1956, he handled two campaigns simultaneously, one for a Republican nominated for the Senate and the other for a Democrat running for governor of Colorado. The Republican lost, but the Democrat won. He is also reputed to have worked for Senator and future Presidential hopeful George McGovern. Eventually, the union presidents would be turfed out of office, while the Nigerian prime minister lost his next election and was promptly thrown in jail. As for McGovern, he, of course, became President Nixon’s target in the Watergate burglary.
While Thomas, tongue firmly in cheek, would only admit to being a “former civil servant”- which, in itself, can be interpreted however one wants- he clearly had no problem putting his job related knowledge into his fiction. And when that needed to be supplemented, he was quite willing to put in the necessary research- yet another skill picked up in his “civil service” days- to add that extra bit of verisimilitude. This was definitely the case in his 1970 The Fools in Town Are on Our Side. The title, which comes from Huckleberry Finn (“Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”) says it all. Moreover, it might also have referred to his own experience, particularly when it came to his political work. The Fools In Town... introduces another one of Thomas’s protagonist, former espionage operative, Lucifer Dye. Unemployed, Dye forms an alliance with an ex–call girl in the Gulf Coast city of Swankton. One of the most unforgettable images in the book occurs near the beginning, in which, during the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937 a four-year-old Lucifer Dye clings to the severed hand of his dead father. A small but important recollection, but one that was written only after Thomas had consulted numerous accounts of the bombing of Shanghai. Less about war than small-town corruption, The Fools… contains one of those unforgettable characters that Thomas excels at, in this case the tough and aptly-named ex–police chief Homer Necessary, a man with one brown eye and one blue eye, “and neither of them contained any more warmth than you would find in a slaughterhouse freezer.” But even though Homer is thoroughly corrupt, when it comes to personal matters he is completely trustworthy. This apparent contradiction in behaviour crops up time and time again in Thomas’s work, where everyone is fallible and moves between extremes, their situations mirroring Thomas’s ambivalence regarding the Cold War, and the way it could so easily corrode the culture.
This corrosion is also a theme in Chinaman’s Chance, which, in my opinion, is one of Thomas’s best novels. Its complicated, and morally ambiguous plot revolves around a female singing group, money supposedly left in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and corruption in a seaside LA community that’s on the verge of being turned into a small-scale Las Vegas a decade before Las Vegas was itself turned into a Walt Disney wet-dream. Chinaman’s Chance also introduces two protagonists: the pretender to the Chinese throne Artie Wu and fellow adventurer Quincy Durant. They also feature in Thomas 1987 Out on the Rim (Durant and Wu also appear in a third novel, Thomas’s 1992 Voodoo, Ltd.). While Chinaman’s Chance is set in Southern California, Out on the Rim takes place in the Philippines just after the fall of Marcos, at a time when no one knew what or who would take the old dictator’s place, and various parties were seeking to cash-in before it was too late. Thomas knew the Philippines well, having served there in World War II, and having visited the country just after Marcos was deposed. Out on the Rim is not only a darkly comic story, but with America currently trying to sell Iraq to the highest bidder, it remains extremely pertinent.
Then there are those who consider Briarpath to be Thomas’s best book. Stylistically, this might be the case. It takes place in Texas or Oklahoma, though one is never quite sure. Wherever it is, it’s hot.
“The redheaded homicide detective stepped through the door at 7:30 A.M. and out into the August heat that already had reached 88 degrees. By noon the temperature would hit 100, and by two or three o'clock it would be hovering around 105. Frayed nerves would then start to snap and produce a marked increase in the detective's business. Breadknife weather, the detective thought. Breadknives in the afternoon.”
The heat permeates the novel, slowing down its inhabitants, but not the plot. Situated in the centre of this unnamed town is a giant clock that the narrator constantly refers to, recording the time and pacing the novel. With five grand in the bank and a used Volkswagen, Ben Dill finds himself in Washington DC, unemployed, trying to figure out what to do with his life. He returns home to investigate the car-bombing murder of his sister, who, prior to her death, was a homicide detective. It’s another one of Thomas’s corrupt town novels, not far removed from the work of Sinclair Lewis or Robert Penn Warren, and populated with the kind of petit-bourgeois greed merchants one finds in Dodsworth and Babbitt. Awarded an Edgar in 1985, Briarpatch contains characters whose moral ambiguity adds to the novel’s humanitarianism; for, as is often the case, Thomas’s heroes only slightly less tarnished and tainted by corruption than his villains, who remain vulnerable, half-ludicrous, half-deadly and all too human.
Published in 1989, The Fourth Durango sounds like it might be set in Mexico or Colorado, but, instead, it takes place in a small town in California that functions as a hideout populated by a businessmen, scamsters and predators attempting to avoid their designated hitmen. Picture a slightly less frenetic and surreal version of Jim Thompson’s Kingdom of El Rey in The Getaway, and you get the idea. With inhabitants paying large sums of money to keep their killers at bay, a former state Supreme Court chief justice arrives, followed by his son-in-law. The latter becomes an emissary to the beautiful and streetwise mayor. A phoney priest follows the former chief justice and his son, leaving behind a trail littered with corpses. A year after The Fourth Durango, Thomas’s Twilight at Mac’s Place came out. This one concerns the memoirs of a recently deceased spy which contain some Cold War secrets that certain people would prefer not to be put in the public domain. When the son of the spy is offered a hundred grand for the rights to the memoirs, he becomes suspicious and seeks out the help of Thomas’s old protagonists McCorkle and Padillo, who have by now seen fit to invest in a bar that bears the book’s title. Small-time entrepreneurism invariably appeals to Thomas’s protagonists, only for them to be dragged back into the world of spooks and scams.http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php
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