In the Washington Post article “Television on the Coast: Shameless Confessions of a Political Junkie” from August 20, 1976, Ross Thomas explained what made him tick.
I am (I confess it with no shame) a gavel-to-gavel political junkie. I got hooked as a child and some of my earliest memories are a curious amalgam of films from the 1930’s and political rallies held in Memorial Park in Oklahoma City where, on a hot summer Depression evening, my parents would sometimes take me to hear the booming oratorical efforts of the likes of Blind Tom Gore, Alfalfa Bill Murray, and a savvy young comer called Mike Monroney.
Probably most thriller writers are interested in politics, but Thomas’s outsized passion for the mid-century American system gave his books a unique ambience, at once humorously bitter and happily jaded.
Thomas was a late bloomer. John Carmody details a complicated history in “Ross Thomas: His Life is Four Open Books” (The Washington Post, March 23, 1969.)
Ross Thomas is 43. For the past seven years or so in this town he has been considered one of the top two or three pro free-lance writers and public relations experts. He was one of those men government agency chiefs and labor union bosses and politicians (mostly Democrats) called in to write speeches or magazine articles or brochures or to help run some campaign for public or private office.
He was paid $60 a day if he didn’t feel like dickering over it and he could bang out the speeches in an hour and a half, which usually made the man he was working for jealous…
Then about three years ago he suddenly said the hellwithit and sat down and wrote a novel in six weeks. This was while he was working at VISTA headquarters, banging out his stuff on an old Royal, literally sitting at a packing case desk.
The same Post article also describes Thomas’s war experience in the Philippines, his public relations work for the National Farmers Union, and his speech-writing for Hubert Humphrey. In Washington, Thomas served on high-level labor councils before leaving for Denver to start his own PR firm. He helped lead a successful campaign for the Colorado governorship, and another successful congressional campaign for George McGovern in South Dakota.
Thomas’s subsequent political work in Nigeria involved “the world of big business protecting its interests in a new market,” Carmody reported. “Thomas recalls with a certain jaded relish the chartered Royal Dutch Shell helicopters and the dickering over Pepsi Cola plants.” In 1961, Thomas returned to the United States, where he continued his career in labor and PR. He wrote for the Post himself, and was a foreign correspondent/spy in Bonn.
Every part of Thomas’s diverse CV finds its way into one of his novels. There are 25 of them, written between 1966 and 1994.
The Cold War Swap (1966) Introduces “Mac” McCorkle and Mike Padillo in West and East Germany. Like Len Deighton (whom he must have read), Thomas put the ironic voice of Raymond Chandler into the spy novel. Thomas wrote in the Post about Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe:
One hour and thirty five minutes before we were to land on the beach of an island in the Philippines called Cebu, the first scout handed me something called Farewell, My Lovely, by someone called Raymond Chandler. It was January of 1945, and I was eighteen.
The title sounded as if it could have been thought up by the American equivalent of Agatha Christie, whose works to this day I cannot read. Imagine my surprise, as Dame Agatha might say, when I opened it to discover Philip Marlowe over on that mixed Central Avenue block in east Los Angeles.
Chandler remains fresh thanks to his astonishing ability to write perfect little scenes populated by outrageous characters. The plot of Farewell, My Lovely makes no sense but the vivid actions and images are unforgettable: huge Moose Malloy, the insect in detective-lieutenant Nulty’s office, the twit Lindsay Marriott’s pride in a small modern sculpture that Marlowe calls “Two Warts on a Fanny.”
When fashioning a surreal vignette, Thomas could rival Chandler. Forty pages in, The Cold War Swap comes to life when McCorkle visits an old friend, mining Thomas’s own experiences as a radio journalist in Bonn.
“Come on in and have a drink.” The voice was deep and mellow.
The door opened wide and I went into the apartment of Cook G. Baker, Bonn correspondent for an international radio news service called Global Reports, Inc. Baker was the one and only professed member of Alcoholics Anonymous in Bonn, and he was a back-slider.
“Hello, Cooky. How’s the booze barrier?”
“I just got up. Care to join me in an eye-opener?”
“I think I’ll pass.”
The apartment was furnished in a haphazard manner. A rumpled day bed. A table or two and an enormous wing-back chair that had a telephone built into one arm and a portable typewriter attached to a stand that swung like a gate. It was Cooky’s office.
Around the room were carefully placed bottles of Ballantine’s Scotch. Some were half full, others nearly so. It was Cooky’s theory that when he wanted a drink he should only have to reach out and there it would be.
“Sometimes when I’m on the floor it’s a hell of a long crawl to the kitchen,” he once explained to me.
Cooky was thirty-three years old that year, and according to Fredl he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. He was a couple of inches over six feet, lean as a whipper, with a high forehead, a perfect nose and a wide mouth that seemed continually to be fighting a smile over some private joke. He wore a dark-blue ascot, a pair of gray flannels that must have cost sixty bucks, and black loafers.
“Sit down, Mac. Coffee?”
“If you have it.”
He picked up one of the bottles of Scotch and disappeared into the kitchen. A couple of minutes later he handed me my coffee and then went back for his drink: a half-tumbler of Scotch with a milk chaser.
He took a long gulp of the Scotch and quickly washed it down with the milk.
“I fell off a week ago,” he said.
“You’ll make it.”
He shook his head sadly and smiled. “Maybe.”
“What do you hear from New York?”
“They’re billing more than thirty-seven million a year now and the money is still being banked to me.”
At twenty-six Cooky had been the boy wonder of Madison Avenue public-relations circles, a founder of Baker, Brickhill and Hillsman.
“I got on the flit one night and just couldn’t get off,” he had explained to me one gloomy night. “They wanted to buy out my interest, but in a moment of sobriety I listened to my lawyers and refused to sell. I’ve got a third of the stock. The more lushed I got, the more stubborn I became. Finally I made a deal. I would get out if they would bank my share of the profits for me. My attorneys handled the whole thing. I’m very rich and I’m very drunk and I know I’m never going to write a book.”
Cooky had been in Bonn for three years. Despite Berlitz and a series of private tutors, he could not learn German. “Mental block,” he had said. “I don’t like the goddamn language and I don’t want to learn it.”
His job was to fill one two-minute news spot a day and occasionally do a live show. His sources were the private secretaries of anyone in town who might have a story. In methodical fashion he had seduced those who were young enough and completely charmed those who were over the edge. I had once spent an afternoon with him while he gathered the news. He had sat in the big chair, the private-joke smile fighting to break through. “Wait,” he had said. “In three minutes the phone will ring.”
It had. First there had been the girl from the Presse Dienst. Then it was one who worked as a stringer for the London Daily Express; when her boss had a story, she made sure that Cooky had it, too. The phone had continued to ring. To all Cooky had been charming, grateful, and sincere.
By eight o’clock the calls had ended and Cooky had gone over his notes. Between us we had managed to finish a fifth. Cooky had glanced around and found a fresh bottle conveniently placed by his chair on the floor. He had tossed it to me. “Mix us a couple more, Mac, while I write this crap.”
He had swung the typewriter toward him, inserted a sheet of paper, and talked the story as he typed. “Chancellor Ludwig Erhard said today that…” He had had two minutes that night, and it had taken him five to write it. “You want to go the studio?”
More than mellow, I had agreed. Cooky had stuck a fifth of Scotch into his macintosh and we had made the dash to the Deutsche Rundfunk station. The engineer had been waiting at the door.
“You have ten minutes, Herr Baker. They have already called you from New York.”
“Plenty of time,” Cooky had said, producing a bottle. The engineer had had a drink, I had had a drink, and Cooky had had a drink. I had been getting drunk, but Cooky had seemed as warm and charming as ever. We had gone into the studio and he gotten on the phone to his editor in New York. The editor had started to reel off the AP and UPI stories that had come over the wire from Bonn.
“I’ve got that…got that…got that. Yeah. That, too. And I’ve got one more on the Ambassador…I don’t give a goddamn if AP doesn’t have it; they’ll move it after nine o’clock.”
We had all had another drink. Cooky had put the earphones on and had talked over the live mike to the engineer in New York. “How they hanging, Frank? That’s good. All right; here we go.”
And Cooky had begun to read. His voice had been excellent, a fifth of Scotch apparently having made no effect. There had been no slurs, no flubs. He had glanced at the clock once, slowed his delivery slightly, and finished in exactly two minutes.
We had had another drink and then proceeded to the saloon, where Cooky and I were to meet two secretaries from the Ministry of Defense. “That,” he had said, on the way to Godesberg, “is how I keep going. If it weren’t for that deadline every afternoon and the fact that I don’t have to get up in the morning, I’d be chasing little men. You know, Mac, you should quit drinking. You’ve got all the earmarks of a lush.”
“My name is Mac and I’m an alcoholic,” I had said automatically.
“That’s the first step. The next time I dry up, we’ll have a long talk.”
Through what he termed his “little pigeons,” Cooky knew Bonn as few others did. He knew the servant problem at the Argentine Embassy as well as he knew that internal power struggle within the Christian Democratic Union. He never forgot anything. He had once said: “Sometimes I think that’s why I drink: to see if I can’t black out. I never have. I remember every God-awful thing that’s done and said.”
The amount of boozing that goes on in The Cold War Swap defies belief. In a superb essay in Mystery Scene, Lawrence Block sheds light on Thomas’s ways of the bottle. The first two times Block and Thomas socialized, Thomas was a teetotaler. The third occasion in 1973 was right out of a Thomas novel, complete with bribe, armed assistant, limo, and liquid lunch.
He came by around eleven-thirty. He rang my doorbell and I opened the door and there was Ross, with his eyes rolling around in his head. “We’ve got nothing to worry about,” he announced. “I just laid twenty bucks on your doorman.”
And just like that I understood why he didn’t drink.
The details of the afternoon are a little vague, and I can’t blame that on the years, because they were vague from the jump. Ross was accompanied by a young man he called the Sergeant-Major, for indiscernible reasons, who seemed to be a sort of driver and bodyguard. The Sergeant-Major went off to do something, and Ross had a seat, and I drank everything I could find in an effort to catch up, because I felt entirely too sober for the company. There was nothing on hand but a few cordials I kept for company, half-pint bottles of Kirschwasser and Goldwasser and Triple Sec, the sort of thing of which nobody would want more than a sip or two, but I braced myself and Made Do.
The Sergeant-Major turned up in time to drive us to Lutece in a limo, picking up my friend Debby en route, where he left us to do something else. (He was armed, Ross told us, and got his gun through airport security—such as it was in those innocent days—by wearing it in an ankle holster.)
At Lutece, they seated the three of us at a lovely table upstairs, and a waiter came to take our drink order. Ross said he wanted a triple vodka martini, straight up and extra dry. The waiter asked if he’d prefer an olive or an onion with that. “We’ll eat later,” Ross announced.
And after that, alas, it all gets rather vague. Ross was in the middle of a two- or three-week toot, and I was no match for him. I blotted my copybook, falling asleep with my head in a plate of Chicken Kiev, but not until I’d had one or two bites of it. It was a specialty at Lutece, and rightly so.
Considering the way Mac and Padillo knock them back in The Cold War Swap, they should also be falling into their food. Instead, they are coolly confident while ringing the changes of an entertaining but fairly predictable spy story.
The Cooky vignette is the best thing in the book, but it also points up one of Thomas’s consistent flaws. Sorry for this lone spoiler, but I must make an example at the beginning of the run: Cooky will turn out to be a traitor and Padillo will kill him, wasting a great character for no compelling reason. In too many Thomas books, blood is shed among the friends you trust.
Cast a Yellow Shadow (1967) Thomas makes a go of a series, probably inspired by Deighton, Ian Fleming, and Donald Hamilton. McCorkle is the amateur (read: Thomas himself) and Padillo is the pro (read: Matt Helm). If Thomas hadn’t gone on to greater things, Padillo and McCorkle would be mostly forgotten. The most memorable thing about the pair is their joint venture: Mac’s Place, a dimly lit, moderately expensive restaurant where you can get solid food and drink, the staff remembers your name, and no one will comment if you bring somebody else’s wife.
For this installment, Thomas has moved the action to Washington, D.C. Karl, the German bartender, explains why:
Some people hang around police stations. Karl hung around Congress. He had been in the States for less than a year but he could recite the names of the one hundred and thirty-five Representatives in alphabetical order. He knew how they voted on every roll call. He knew when and where committees met and whether their sessions were opened or closed. He could tell you the status of any major piece of legislation in either the Senate or the House and make you a ninety or ninety-five per cent accurate prediction on its chance for passage. He read the Congressional Record faithfully and snickered while he did it. He had worked for me before in a saloon I had once owned in Bonn, but the Bundestag had never amused him. He found Congress one long laugh.
Thomas knew this millieu was distinctive. His 1972 Post article “Washington: The Spy Novelist’s Delight” anthologizes nine D.C. vignettes from various books (including Karl the bartender). Thomas concludes:
For a living I write suspense novels, or thrillers, or perhaps as Graham Green describes them, entertainments. They do reasonably well, if not as well as I would like, and their backgrounds, often as not, are laid in Washington, which in my opinion, has more sharpies and sonsofbitches per square foot than any place in Christendom.
After Chandler, Thomas’s other big influence is Dashiell Hammett. In Yellow Shadow (and several future Thomas books) the general model of The Maltese Falcon is appropriated: there are no real heroes, just a collection of scalawags who never trusted each other to begin with. But in Thomas’s case the labyrinth of deception and double-cross may undercut the possibility of a logical conclusion. At the end of Yellow Shadow, only Mac and Padillo are left. Considering how many associates have been involved along the way, that’s just silly.
It’s telling that Thomas dismissed Agatha Christie as unreadable. Hammett, a superior plotter than Chandler or Thomas, bragged that some of the clues in his books were worthy of Christie.
The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967) Padillo has only a tiny cameo in the first of Thomas’s elegant, dispassionate, truthful-sounding tales of fixers rounding up the votes by defaming the opposition and paying off the union.
While Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Glass Key and Bay City in Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely are about dirty municipal politics, most classic crime and espionage tales ignore general elections. Thomas’s life experience was the biggest influence here, but it is fun to guess what else he might have read when imagining telling this kind of story. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is an obvious candidate, and W.R. Burnett’s Vanity Row (1952) and Donald E. Westlake’s Killy (1964) are great tales of city machines and union elections.
The classic political Thomas novels remain a genre unto their own. An apt quote from the Village Voice adorns many of the books: “What Elmore Leonard does for crime in the streets, Ross Thomas does for crime in the suites.”
Seersucker Whipsaw is set in Africa. In its overture, Clinton Shartelle is called back into harness to “inject a little American razzamatazz into the campaign.”
“You have the reputation as the best rough-and-tumble campaign manager in the United States. You have six metropolitan mayors, five governors, three U.S. Senators, and nine Congressmen that you can honestly claim credit for. You’ve defeated the sales tax in four states, and got it passed in one. You got an oil severance tax passed in two states and got the resulting revenue earmarked for schools in one of them. In other words, you’re the best that’s available and Padraic Duffy told me to tell you he said that. You’ve to do whatever has to be done to get Chief Akomolo elected.”
Thomas actually ran a campaign for Chief Obafemi Awolowo in Nigeria, so the local details have the ring of truth. Strangely, Thomas didn’t mention that he made a book out of his experiences in the Post article “The Great Nigerian Razzamatazz Scheme” ( March 23, 1975).
On the next page we learn that Thomas rubbed shoulders with some unsavory types, and that running a campaign in Nigeria was difficult.
The proper practice of modern American political techniques, of course, requires the presence of media. In Nigeria there wasn’t any. There was television, but no sets. There was radio, but it was government controlled. There were newspapers, but they were pretty awful and not much read and even less believed. And besides, each of them hewed pretty close to their own particular party line.
So Filthy Fred and I invented our own medium. We borrowed the sky. Up there in the African blue we and a refugee from the RAF wrote “AWO” over and over with an old biplane that he flew down from London.
There’s no hard evidence to prove that the CIA anted up for Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s campaign. But somebody did and it certainly wasn’t MI6. After all, Chief Awolowo was the CIA’s kind of folks. He was left, but not too far left, and he hated the British. If he got elected, then the Americans would become the dominant friendly foreign power in the land of the cocoa bean. They weren’t worried about oil then. They knew that there was oil in Nigeria, but they didn’t know quite how much. If they had known — and here I’m assuming that they are the CIA — they might have spent a little bit more money. Maybe another couple of million.
To create an exciting novel, Thomas has to draw on his imagination, not just the facts. In Seersucker Whipsaw Shartelle does indeed do “whatever has to be done to get Chief Akomolo elected,” and it’s far more extreme than skywriting.
The only things holding the novel back are an ostentatious love interest and, in the epilogue, a surprise dive into heroism. It doesn’t matter. This is the first great Ross Thomas.
The Singapore Wink (1969) A basic question animates and sometimes plagues Thomas’s novels: How to energize the hero? McCorkle and Padillo went on self-serving espionage missions; Shartelle ran an election. In Singapore Wink, the Mafia pressures ex-stuntman Edward Cauthorne to resolve an old mystery. According to Carmody, the Mafia stuff comes from another unpublished book: Thomas was hired to work on the Joseph Valachi memoir. Legal tangles led to his replacement with Peter Maas. Thomas told Carmody that he learned enough about the Mafia for “seven or eight novels,” but this is the only Thomas book that includes Mafia clichés. (There’s a comparatively minimal Mob element in The Money Harvest.)
The Singapore Wink is not all that believable to begin with, and eventually there are too many double-crosses. The best parts of the book center on the upscale Hollywood store Les Voitures Anciennes, where Cauthorne and Richard K.E. Trippet restore old American cars to mint condition. Woody Haut observes that “small-time entrepreneurism invariably appeals to Thomas’s protagonists, only for them to be dragged back into the world of spooks and scams.”
While in Singapore, Cauthorne shuttles money and information to and from the Mafia, the local police, the home police, and assorted other criminals. Thomas became fascinated with the idea of a paid professional working a self-interested middle between the law and the lawbreakers: a go-between.
The Brass Go-Between (1969) (as Oliver Bleeck) Five books published under a pen name chronicle Philip St. Ives, the man who both criminals and victims trust to resolve tricky situations. Has this kind of “go-between” ever really existed? I doubt it, but on the other hand it’s no less likely than a private detective who solves murders or a daredevil spy.
Thomas wrote of real-life German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel in “Shcharansky Free At Last” (collected in Spies, Thumbsuckers, Etc.), calling him a “professional go-between.” But Vogel worked between the East and West, not between cops and robbers. More relevant, perhaps, is Sam Spade, who is arguably a go-between in The Maltese Falcon. Even more relevant is Eric Ambler’s minor thriller A Kind of Anger from 1964, which seems to prefigure Bleeck series in several ways.
At any rate, almost all of Thomas’s future heroes are willing to work the middle.
Thomas didn’t change his voice for the Bleeck series. Lawrence Block remembers, “One day in 1969 I came across a new book called The Brass Go-Between, by one Oliver Bleeck, identified by his publisher as the pseudonym of a well-known writer… I opened the book, read two or three pages, and knew at once just what well-known writer had written these words.”
Indeed, who else could have written this minor vignette?
Albert Shippo and Associates’ office was at East 24th Street on the eighth floor of the George Building, which was as unimpressive as its name. There were two elevators, but only one of them was working under the captaincy of a shabbily dressed old man with a face the color and texture of a worn peach pit and pure white hair that hung down to his shoulders. He jerked the handle when I said, “eight,” and when the door didn’t close, he kicked it with a scuffed cowboy boot. The elevator responded, grudgingly, it seemed, and we creaked upward.
At the second floor, he turned to look at me. “Don’t get any ideas, rube. I ain’t one of them just because of the long hair.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
“Some folks get the wrong idea. I rode with Bill, you know. Madison Square Garden, nineteen-ought-nine.”
“Bill Cody, you dumb shit. William Frederick Cody. Buffalo Bill.”
“You were in his Wild West Show, huh?”
“Dammed right I was. We all wore our hair long like this from Bill on down. Now folks think I’m one of those Village punks, but I ain’t. I’m part Indian, too. Chickasaw on my mother’s side.”
“You must have some great memories,” I said as the elevator croaked to a stop at the eighth floor.
“They ain’t so hot,” the old man said.
The Brass Go-Between is filled with humor and action set in the ideal Thomas arenas of New York City and Washington D.C. The Procane Chronicle offers stars a memorable thief in the title role and is filled with superb descriptions of NYC bars.
Procane was filmed as St. Ives starring Charles Bronson. I haven’t seen it, but Thomas’s article for the Post, “My Thriller: I Lost it at the Movies” (October 10, 1976) is rather condemning.
After five minutes of watching I realized that nothing of mine was going to be used except the skeleton of the plot. When I had met Charles Bronson on the set, he had told me, “I haven’t read your book.” That’s okay, I said, I didn’t see your last picture.
Although the Carmody article makes a big deal of Thomas’s friendship with Steve McQueen (who apparently couldn’t decide whether he wanted to play McCorkle or Padillo), there are no other adaptations of Thomas novels besides St. Ives. He had a hand in the marginally successful screenplay of Hammett; more significant for Thomas fans is the Lawrence Fishburne/Ellen Barkin vehicle Bad Company, as the screenplay credit doesn’t list anyone besides Thomas. Sadly, this B-film (which came out just before Thomas died) is entirely forgettable. Anything Thomas wrote is remote and “knowing,” but Bad Company grits its teeth throughout. Big boss Frank Langella wearing waders while fishing in a large pool built inside his office is the only authentic image.
Back to Bleeck. I admire The Brass Go-Between and The Procane Chronicle, but Protocol for a Kidnapping, The Highbinders, and No Questions Asked are lesser works, probably only for completists. Despite the occasional great Thomas paragraph and some funny characters, they have the feel of being written too quickly for a paycheck.
Around the same time as The Brass Go-Between, Thomas co-authored Warriors for the Poor: The Story of VISTA, Volunteers In Service to America with William H. Crook, a nonfiction account of a still active government agency informally known as “the domestic peace corps.” The prose is quite leaden, so undoubtedly it is more Crook than Thomas. The comment in Carmody is amusing:
…Recently completed a book for a $2000 fee (with William Crook, the former director) on VISTA which has taken a terrible panning from critics. This does not faze Thomas because he knows precisely what kind of book was expected from an old pro called in to do a job.
Some of the chapter titles in Warriors for the Poor are fabulous:
How to Reach Forty Without Selling Out
Dead for All Intents and Purposes
This Used to Be a Real Nice Neighborhood
Baltimore Is a Big, Dead Fish, But My Mother Likes It
The Next Social Worker Will Be Shot
Don’t Mention Block Clubs in Miami Beach
A Master’s Degree in Poverty
If You Can’t Raise $35 Bail, You’re Indigent
“Dead for All Intents and Purposes” is almost interesting as it gives the history of how the first bill to create the National Service Corps (the precursor of VISTA) was not passed in the House and the Senate. This is just the kind of thing Karl the German bartender would know the real story behind! However, none of Thomas’s rapier wit gets to be used on the real people involved. I found it rather a slog, although perhaps it would be fascinating to those who study Sixties politics. Only at the end of the chapter is there a paragraph that sounds informed by the master. I italicize two snooze-worthy sentences in the middle, presumably William H. Crook’s work.
The Kennedy Administration had made a valiant but unsuccessful effort to transfer the charisma of the Peace Corps to the National Service Corps which, despite herculean efforts to alter its image, still remained something of an ugly duckling, just a trifle ridiculous perhaps, even a little quaint. Overlooked by Congress was the fact that the corps would be a unique departure in the history of American aid to the disadvantaged. Never before had there been the opportunity to dispatch trained full-time volunteers into the poverty of the nation. [Snooze.] Although the do-gooders were undoubtedly needed, the approach to Congress had smacked too much of Madison Avenue and too little of the grass roots. It had all been just a trifle too glossy, a trifle too slick, a trifle too arrogant for the preponderantly conservative representatives of the people who composed the first session of the 88th Congress.
Ultimately Warriors for the Poor seems to be just another of Thomas’s unusual jobs to be mined for future material: in The Porkchoppers, Kelly Cubbin spends time in a VISTA-type organization.
The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (1970) An agent provocateur goes in to clean up a corrupt town. Thomas obviously shows a debt to Hammett’s Red Harvest. One question always remains about the older masterpiece: Would all the entrenched criminals really keep the Continental Op around after he starts successfully stirring up trouble? Since Lucifer Dye is a paid criminal himself, with both sides wondering if he’s really working for them, in a way Thomas’s story is a little more believable.
Thomas flexes his authorial muscles in Fools in Town. Even the title, which comes from Mark Twain—“Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”—shows an attempt to work a bigger sociological canvas. Thomas is entirely successful; Fools is one of his best books.
In one famous passage, Thomas decodes Swankerton, a fictional town somewhere in Texas or Oklahoma. (If the burg is Oklahoma City, it’s more disguised than in the later Briarpatch.) Apologies for the word “Niggertown.” Regrettably it is authentic 1970 lingo, repeatedly used in the book by powerful corrupt Swankertown whites when counting up the profits.
Swankerton had the outline of a squatty pear; its fat bottom sprawled along the expensive Gulf Coast beach and then tapered reluctantly north into quiet, middle-income residential areas whose forty and fifty-year old elms and weeping willows cooled and shaded streets where parking was still no problem. In the warm evenings the owners of the neat houses came home, changed into bermuda shorts, and stood about, gin and tonic in hand, watching their creepy-crawler sprinklers wet down the thick green lawns and wondering whether it wasn’t the right time to sell and move to the suburbs, now that the place was looking so nice.
Farther up the pear, just below the neck, the neat homes and green lawns made way for ugly frame houses that once may have been bright green or blue or even yellow, but were now mostly a disappointed gray, ugly as old soldiers. The poor whites lived there, the millhands and the rednecks and their big-boned wives and tow-headed kids. The gray houses weren’t really old. Most had been built right after World War II to accommodate the returning warriors and they had been thrown up fast in developments that went by such names as Monterrey Vistas and Vahlmall Gardens and Lakeview Acres. They had been cheaply built and cheaply financed with four percent VA loans and no money down to vets.
But the vets who had lived there right after World War II had long since moved away. The lawns had turned brown and some of the trees had died and the concrete streets with the fancy names were broken. Nearly every block had one or two rusting shrines to despair in the form of a ’49 Ford with a busted block or a ’51 Pontiac with frozen main bearings. Nobody admitted that the shrines even existed because admission implied ownership and it cost fifteen dollars to have them towed away.
The owners and renters here came home after work too, but they didn’t change into anything. Those who worked the day shift just sat around on the shady side of the house in their plastic-webbed lawn chairs that they got at the drugstore for $1.98 each and drank Jax beer and yelled at their kids.
The gray houses with their composition roofs kept on going block after block until they ran against the railroad tracks which split Swankerton neatly in two about halfway up the pear. The tracks, which ran all the way from Washington to Houston, served as the city’s color line. North of the tracks was black. South was white.
When you crossed the tracks leading north you found yourself in another enclave of neat houses and emerald lawns and creepy-crawler sprinklers. It lasted for almost twelve blocks. The owners here were black and after work they came home and stood around, martini in hand, and wondered whether they should buy their wives a Camaro or one of those new Javelins. They were Niggertown’s affluent, its political leaders, its doctors and dentists, its morticians, schoolteachers, lawyers, skilled workers, restaurant owners, insurance salesmen, policy men, and the Federal civil servants who worked out at the big Air Force depot.
Past these well-tended houses and still father up the neck of the pear spread the rest of Niggertown, a collection of flimsy, gimcrack houses, often duplexes, whose sides were covered with Permastone or imitation brick and which often as not leaned crazily at each other. And on the edge of the city, just before the suburban sprawl began, was Shacktown, a fully integrated city, composed of packing-crate hovels, abandoned buses, and ancient house trailers that hadn’t been moved in twenty years. In Shacktown teeth were bad and bellies were swollen and eyes were glazed. Those who lived there had given up everything, but the last luxury to go had been the comforting awareness of racial identity. But now that had gone, too, and everyone in Shacktown was almost colorblind.
The stem of the pear was the Strip, a three-mile-long double strand of junkyards, motels, gas stations, nightclubs, roadhouses, and honkytonks. Interspersed among these were the franchised food spots, all glass and godawful colors, that hugged the highway to offer fried chicken and hamburgers which all tasted the same but signaled the weary traveler that a kind of civilization lay just a little way ahead.
The Strip sliced outlying suburbia neatly in two, skirted Shacktown, and when it reached the city limits they called it MacArthur Drive. Desk-top flat and six and eight and even ten lanes wide, it rolled and twisted all the way down from Chicago and St. Louis and Memphis, taking bang-on aim at the Gulf of Mexico. They called it the Strip sometimes but more often just U.S. 97. It was the river that Swankerton had never had, the route of the endless caravan of semis and articulated vans, big as box cars, that growled up hills in low tenth gear and roared down the other side, seventy and eighty miles per hour, black smoke snorting from their diesel stacks and their drivers praying for the goddamned brakes to hold. The teamsters rolled them night and day down the highway that linked the city with the North and the West and they handled more freight in a day than the railroads did in a week. They rolled down from Pittsburgh and Minneapolis and Omaha and Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland, bringing Swankerton what it couldn’t grow and what it couldn’t make itself, which was just about everything except textiles and vice.
Lucifer Dye’s assistant is Homer Necessary, the ex-police chief with one blue and one brown eye. He’s corrupt, mean, and he gets the job done.
Then he turned to the young man in the chair. “You got a name?”
“Frank. Frank Smith. That’s the God’s truth. It’s Smith.”
Necessary returned the blackjack to his hip pocket and slapped Frank Smith across the face. It was a hard, brisk slap. “That’s what you get for telling the truth, Frank. You can just let your imagination work on what you’re going to get when you start lying.”
Not if, I noticed, but when. I lit a cigarette and watched the ex-chief operate. I decided that he must have enjoyed his former line of work.
Thomas almost always wrote about male partnerships. Unusually, it takes nearly all of Fools in Town for Dye and Necessary to bond. It’s too bad Thomas retired them after a single book, but if you run across them somewhere, perhaps you could hire them yourself, if the money was right.
My one mild criticism of Fools is that the main story about Swankerton is plenty; we don’t need the entire Shanghai/Section Two segment as well. Indeed, that whole backstory could have been a book on its own. But two for one isn’t so bad, either.
The Backup Men (1971) Nothing makes a whole lot of sense in any of the Mac and Padillo plots. It’s impossible that all these mysterious villains keep forcing Padillo to return to service as bodyguard or assassin when he doesn’t really want to.
However, over 200 pages in, when the team is on a search and kill mission in a mostly deserted San Francisco office building, Thomas gives us another perfect vignette. It must be stressed that the following has nothing to do with plot, but exists simply because Thomas wanted to write this character.
The lighted door was half frosted glass and half wood. Carefully lettered in black on the glass was “The Arbitrator, Miss Nancy deChant Orumber, Editor.” Padillo motioned us to the other side of the door where we flattened ourselves against the wall. He took up a similar position next to the door knob, reached for it, turned it, and flung the door open. It banged against something inside the office. We waited, but nothing happened. We waited some more and then a woman’s voice asked in a cool, polite tone, “May I help you?”
She wore a gray leghorn hat with a wide brim and a narrow white band that had artificial flowers attached to it. Pink roses, I think. She sat behind an old but carefully polished oak desk which was covered with what seemed to be galley proofs. Two sides of the room were lined with bookshelves that contained bound copies that had The Arbitrator lettered on them in gold ink below that the year of their issue. They went back all the way to 1905.
She looked at us with unwavering bright blue eyes that were covered with gold-rimmed spectacles. Her hair was white and she held a fat editor’s pencil in her right hand. Next to her on a stand was an L.C. Smith typewriter. There was a black phone on the desk and against the outer wall there were three cabinets that the door had banged against. Everything was spotlessly clean.
She asked again if she could help us and Padillo hastily stuck his automatic back in his waistband and said, “Security, ma’am. Just checking.”
“This building hasn’t had a night watchman since nineteen-sixty-three,” she said. “I do not think you are telling the truth. However, you seem too well dressed to be bandits, especially the young lady. I like your frock, my dear.”
“Thank you,” Wanda said.
“I am Miss Orumber and this is my last night in this office so I welcome your company although I must say that well brought up young ladies and gentlemen are taught to knock before entering. You will join me in a glass of wine, of course.”
“Well, I don’t think that–” Padillo didn’t get a chance to finish.
“Nonsense,” she said, rising and moving over to one of the filing cabinets. “There was a time when we would have champagne, but–” She let the sentence trail off as she brought out a bottle of sherry, placed it on the desk, returned to the file cabinet, and produced four long-stemmed glasses which she polished with a clean white cloth.
“You, young man,” she said to me. “You look as though you may have acquired a few of the social graces along the way. There’s character in your face. Some would probably call it dissipation, but I choose to call it character. You may pour the wine.”
I looked at Padillo who shrugged slightly. I poured the wine and handed glasses all around.
“We will not drink to me,” she said, “but to The Arbitrator and to its overdue demise. The Arbitrator.” We sipped the wine.
“In nineteen-twenty-one a man sent me a Pierce-Arrow. A limousine. The only condition was that I include his name in that year’s edition of The Arbitrator. A limousine, can you imagine? No gentleman would present a lady with a limousine unless he also provided a chauffeur. The man was a boor. Needless to say his name was not included.”
She had a lined, haughty face with a thin nose and a still strong chin. She could have have been a beauty fifty or sixty years ago, one of those tall imperious types that Gibson once drew.
“What is The Arbitrator,” Padillo asked, “San Francisco’s social register?” I think he was trying to be polite.
“Not is, young man, but was. It ruled San Francisco society for nearly forty years. I have been its only editor. Now society in San Francisco is no more and after this edition, neither is The Arbitrator.”
She finished her drink in quick, tiny sips. “I shan’t keep you,” she said, moving around her desk and lowering herself into the chair. “Thank you for coming.”
We turned to go, but she said, “Do you know something? Today is my birthday. I had quite forgotten. I am eighty-five.”
“Our best wishes,” I said.
“I’ve edited The Arbitrator since nineteen-o-nine. This will be the last edition, but I said that, didn’t I? May I ask you something, young man? You with the brooding eyes,” she said, nodding at Padillo.
“Anything,” he said.
“Can you think of a more ridiculous way to spend a lifetime than deciding who should or should not be considered members of something called society?”
“I can think of several,” he said.
“Really? Do tell me one to cheer me up.”
“I’d hate to spend a lifetime worrying about whether I belonged to something called society.”
She brightened. “And the bastards did worry, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” Padillo said. “I’m sure they did.”
The Porkchoppers (1972) Thomas tries out third-person for the first time. It suits him well: a bird’s-eye view gives him even more room for digressions, descriptions, and vignettes.
The topic is a union election. The White House has a stake in the outcome, as do the fixers, the bagmen, and of course two unforgettable candidates, Daniel Cubbin and Sammy Hanks.
Daniel Cubbin looked as if he should be president of something, possibly of the United States or, if his hangover wasn’t too bad, of the world. Instead, he was president of an industrial labor union whose headquarters was in Washington and whose membership was up around 990,000, depending on who did the counting.
Cubbin’s union was smaller that the auto workers and the teamsters, but a little larger than the steelworkers and the machinists, and since the first two were no longer in the AFL-CIO just then, it meant that he was the president of the largest in the establishment house of labor.
Cubbin had been president of his union since the early fifties, falling into the job after the death of the Good Old Man who was its first president and virtual founder. The union’s executive board, meeting in a special session, had appointed the secretary-treasurer to serve as president until the next biennial election. As secretary-treasurer, Cubbin had spent nearly sixteen years carrying the Good Old Man’s bag. After he was appointed president, he quickly learned to like it and soon discovered that there were a number of persons around who were anxious and eager to carry his bag, and this he particularly liked. So he had held on to the job for nearly nineteen years, enjoying its perquisites that included a salary that had climbed steadily to its current level of $65,000 a year, a fat, noncontributory pension scheme, a virtually nonaccountable expense allowance, a chauffeured Cadillac as big as a cabinet member’s, and large, permanent suites in the Madison in Washington, the Hilton in Pittsburgh, the Warwick in New York, the Sheraton-Blackstone in Chicago, and the Beverly-Wilshire in Los Angeles.
Over the years Cubbin had faced only two serious challenges from persons that wanted his job. The first occurred in 1955 when a popular, fast-talking vice-president from Youngstown, Ohio, thought that he had detected a groundswell and promptly announced his candidacy. The Youngstown vice-president had received some encouragement, but more important, some money from another international union that occasionally dabbled in intramural politics. The fast-talking vice-president and Cubbin fought a noisy, almost clean campaign from which Cubbin emerged with a respectable two-to-one margin and a permanent grudge against the president of the union that had meddled in what Cubbin had felt to be a sacrosanctly internal matter.
Cubbin was a little older in 1961 — he was fifty-one by then — when for the second time he detected signs of opposition. This time they came from a man that he himself had hired, the union’s director of organization who, after getting his degree at Brown in economics, took a job as a sweeper in a Gary, Indiana plant (an experience he still had nightmares about) and who possessed, along with his degree, the conviction that he was destined to be the forerunner of a new and vigorous breed of union leadership, the kind that would be on an equal intellectual footing with management.
Cubbin could have fired him, of course. But he didn’t. Instead he placed a call to the White House. A week later the director of organization was awakened at six-thirty by a call from Bobby Kennedy who told him that the President needed him to be an assistant secretary of state. Not too many people were saying no to the Kennedys in 1961, certainly not the director of organization for Cubbin’s union who was then only thirty-six and terribly excited about being chosen to scout for the New Frontier. Later, when Cubbin had a few drinks, he liked to tell cronies about how he had buried his opposition in Froggy Bottom. He did an excellent mimicry of both Bobby Kennedy and the director of organization.
In “With ‘Joe Hill’ and the Men of Steel” in the Washington Post (Nov. 16, 1976), Thomas writes about some of his history with unions. At times it reads just like the excerpt above.
The invitation was hand-written in brown ink and it wanted to know whether I wouldn’t like to have beer and hot dogs in Santa Monica with Ed Sadlowski, the 38-year-old Chicago maverick who was running hard for the presidency of the 1.5 million-member United Steelworkers Union.
Being president of the steelworkers is a nice job that, when I last looked, paid $75,000 a year and offered fringe benefits comparable to those enjoyed by the Shah of Iran. It wasn’t difficult to understand why Sadlowski would want it. What was difficult to understand was why he would want to have beer and hot dogs with me since I had once spent a wild and wacky two months of my life [in 1965] trying to prevent Sadlowski and his crowd from dumping David J. McDonald from that very same post.
Despite my efforts, or perhaps because of them, McDonald merrily lost…
The text then gets smudged and hard to read. Later on Thomas says that the current bunch are “tabby cats” compared to the squad Walter Reuther sent in to take down McDonald. Lurking among those Reuther UAW agents was Robert A. Maheu, the “ex-FBI agent who went on to manage Howard Hughes’ Las Vegas empire and served as contact man for the CIA when the geniuses in Langley decided they needed Mafia help in assassinating Fidel Castro….”
These days, The Porkchoppers has lost some of its power to shock, but at the time it must have been pretty racy indeed.
Boone had started small in Chicago, first investing a fair amount of capital in several white-occupied apartment buildings…
…then buying into a small construction business. Boone knew little or nothing about the construction business, but he knew all there was to know about payoffs and bribes and kickbacks and so his business began to flourish with the collective blessing of various city employees who bought new cars or had their kids’ teeth straightened thanks to Boone’s generosity.
Indigo Boone then went into politics, starting small and mildly meek at the precinct level and working his way up the Democratic party ladder, largely by doing those onerous chores that nobody else wanted to fool with, until he was now something of a minor power with excellent connections downtown.
Prior to 1960 Boone had helped steal a few elections, but it had been mostly minor stuff that had involved no more than sending some extra Democratic state legislators down to Springfield. But on the night of the election of 1960 the word came down to Boone that they would need a few additional Kennedy votes. Boone found them here and there, doing what he regarded as no more than his usual workmanlike job. But as the night wore on, additional word came down that more and more Kennedy votes were needed, that in fact a whole raft of them was needed, that indeed a deluge of Chicago Kennedy votes were needed to offset the downstate trend.
Boone found them. At least he found a lot of them and some said most. He invented new ways to filch precincts right out from under the noses of the Republican poll watchers. He improvised foolproof means of inflating the actual Democratic vote. He fell back on time-honored methods and voted the lame, the sick, the halt and the dead. He even, some said, managed to corrupt the voting machines themselves. He sped from polling place to polling place that night in a squad car, its siren moaning hoarsely, its top light flashing, giving counsel, advice, and instructions to the party faithful and buying what was needed from those who were not so faithful, peeling off fifty- and one-hundred-dollar bills from a roll that one prejudiced observer later claimed was “as big as a cantaloupe.”
Afterward, there were those partisans who claimed that Boone’s efforts had saved the nation from Richard Nixon, at least for a while. Illinois went Democratic by 8,858 votes out of the 4,746,834 that were cast for the two major parties. “Well,” Indigo Boone had said later, “when they called up and told me they needed some more Kennedy votes, why I just scurried around and got them some more, about nine thousand more, if I recollect right.”
Mickey Della is another one of the fixers, a hired gun to dream up dirty tricks.
Hanks was now accusing Cubbin of having sold out the union…it was strong stuff carefully written in an awful, florid style to make sure that it would be both broadcast and printed.
“Who writes this crap for Sammy?” the AP man asked The Wall Street Journal reporter.
“Mickey Della, I guess.”
“I thought so.”
“Only a real pro could make it this bad.”
After answering a few perfunctory questions, the press conference ended and Sammy Hanks left the large hotel room on Fourteenth and K Streets and headed down the hall followed by a heavy, stooped, shambling gray-haired man whose bright blues eyes glittered balefully from behind bifocal glasses with bent steel frames. The man had his usual equipment consisting of a Pall Mall cigarette parked in the corner of his mouth underneath a stained, scraggly gray mustache and a newspaper tucked under his arm. He was never seen without either a cigarette in his mouth or a newspaper under his arm because he was addicted to both. He smoked four packs of Pall Malls a day and bought every edition of every paper published in whatever city or town he happened to be in. If asked about his addiction to newspapers — he could never pass a stand or a street seller without buying one — the man always said, “What the hell, it only costs a dime and where else can you buy that much bullshit for a dime?”
The man was Mickey Della…
…He was a professional political press agent, or public relations adviser, or flack, or whatever anyone wanted to call him, he didn’t mind, and he was without a doubt the most vicious one around and quite possibly the best and he felt right at home working for Sammy Hanks.
He had been at it for more than forty years and for him it contained no more surprises, but he was hooked on it now, as addicted as any mainliner is to heroin. Mickey Della needed politics to live and he lunched on its intrigue and dined on its gossip. Its heartbreak provided him with breakfast…
…He had learned to use radio in the thirties and television in the fifties and he used them skillfully in a nasty, clever way that assured maximum impact…
…But Della remained essentially a newspaper man, a muckraker, an exposer of vice and wrongdoing, a viewer with alarm who had never got over the feeling that almost any evil could be cured by ninety-point headlines. And that was the principal reason that he was working for Sammy Hanks, because it was going to be a print campaign, as dirty, nasty, vicious, and lowdown as one could hope for and since it might possibly be the last such campaign ever held, Mickey Della would almost have paid to get in on it. Instead, he had lowered his usual fee of $66,789 to $61,802. Della always quoted his fee in precise amounts because he figured exactitude served as balm to the people who had to pay the bill.
Seaching for way to derail Cubbin’s campaign, Della begins his work in earnest:
Sunday was feast day for Mickey Della. It was the day that he rose at seven to devour The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Sunday Star, The Baltimore Sun, and the New York Daily News in approximately that order.
Della lived in the same large one-bedroom apartment on Sixteenth Street N.W. that he lived in since 1948. It was an apartment from which two wives had departed and whose goings Della had scarcely noticed. Now he lived alone, surrounded by hundreds of books, some mismatched but comfortable furniture, and six green, five-drawer filing cabinets that were crammed with articles and features that Della had ripped from newspapers and tucked away for future reference.
The apartment was cluttered, but not messy. The ashtrays were all clean, except for the one that Della used as he read his twenty-five pounds or so of newspapers. Only one coffee cup was visible. An old wooden desk with an equally old typewriter in its well had no litter on its surface. Della had cooked his own breakfast that morning, but there was no evidence of it in the kitchen. His bed was made and his pajamas were hung neatly behind the door of the bathroom whose tub was innocent of a ring. It was the apartment of someone who had lived alone long enough to learn that it was easier to be neat than not.
At noon Della crossed to the phone and dialed the home number of the man he bought his liquor from. “Mickey Della, Sid…I’m fine. Sorry to bother you on Sunday but I want to place a standing order with you and I’ll be out of town for a few days…Yeah. What I want is a fifth of real cheap bourbon, I don’t care what kind, to be delivered personally and gift wrapped to the same guy every day for the next month. Now he’s going to be out of town most of the time so you’re going to have to arrange it with American Express or Western Union or whoever you work it through…Yeah, it’s kind of a joke. I want it to start today, if possible. He’s in Chicago. Okay. Now I want the card to read, ‘Courage, a Friend.’ That’s all. Hell, I don’t even remember whether they sell booze in Chicago on Sunday. It’s not famous for its blue laws….Yeah, well, the guy I want you to send it to is Daniel Cubbin. Today and tomorrow he’ll be at the Sheraton-Blackstone in Chicago. Thanks, Sid.”
Della chuckled as he went back to his newspapers. Later there would be needling harassments that would be far better and much more vicious. But it was okay for a start and just right to set the tone for another Mickey Della campaign.
The Porkchoppers is a masterpiece that should be included on any list of this decade’s best thrillers. I’ve read it half-a-dozen times and it just keeps getting better. It’s not overdone, but rolls gently and smoothly through the mud, coming to a quiet rest on the far fencepost, sighing with irrevocable melancholy.
As with The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, there is an extraneous story: rent-a-killer Truman Goff has no good reason to be included. (Admittedly, I’m the kind of skeptical soul that wonders if Taylor Henry’s murder was necessary in The Glass Key.) Probably Thomas thought he needed some murders to sell the book as a thriller, and maybe he was right.
Thomas has found his stride and all the remaining books under the Thomas byline are great.
If You Can’t Be Good (1973) This volume is almost never mentioned by fans or commentators, but it has a tighter plot than most, a satisfying climax, and a superb reveal about the title. Thomas obviously writes himself as Deke Lucas, the cynical, nonviolent researcher who spends most of his time in libraries and exchanges witty barbs with his girlfriend.
The Kennedys turn up again when Lucas tells his personal history. There’s no doubt that Thomas was a liberal. In the Carmody article, it says that Thomas “…was one of the three cofounders of the Nigerian Democrats for Adlai Stevenson in 1960.” There’s also no doubt that Thomas goes after Democrats whenever he can! Of course he does this because he knew that both sides were dirty. Here the titles of Lucas’s reports sound like chapter titles in Warriors For the Poor.
In late 1959 I had been a candidate for a doctoral degree in history at the University of Colorado when Bobby Kennedy had swung through the West looking for people who might like to see his brother nominated President. Although only twenty-one at the time and a nominal Socialist, I had set up an organization that called itself Republican Students for Kennedy. It had made a lot of noise, but not enough to prevent John Kennedy from losing Colorado in the 1960 election by nearly 62,000 votes. After twelve years in government, I think I’m an anarchist.
But the Kennedys, devout believers in the spoils system, had been grateful for my efforts and so I was invited to Washington. When I arrived in early February of 1961 nobody was quite sure what to do with me so they made me a $50-a-day consultant and assigned me to something called Food for Peace, which was run out of a small suite in the old Executive Office Building next door to the White House by a young ex-congressman named George McGovern who didn’t quite know what to do with me either.
It was finally decided that since I was a budding historian it would be nice if I made a historic record of the first shipment of Food for Peace from the time that it left Baltimore with appropriate fanfare to when it entered the bellies of those whose hearts and minds it surely would win to Democracy’s side. I suppose everyone was still a bit naïve back in 1961.
The first shipment of food was 300 tons of wheat destined for the bellies of the citizens of one of those countries on the west coast of Africa that had just shrugged off a couple of hundred years of British colonial rule. A third of the wheat disappeared into the black market the same day that it was unloaded. The rest of it just vanished only to turn up a few weeks later when a Dutch freighter, flying a Liberian flag of convenience, dropped anchor in Marseilles.
Some six weeks after that, selected elite units of the new African nation’s army were sporting the French-made MAT 49 nine-millimeter submachine guns and I arranged to to have some awfully good pictures of them which I turned in with my 129-page report that I entitled, “Where the Wheat Went, or How Many 9mm Rounds in a Bushel?”
After that I somehow became an unofficial Cupidity and Corruption Specialist, always temporarily inflicted upon one government agency or another that had managed to get itself into hot water. I usually pried and poked for around for two or three months, digging though records and asking questions and looking grim and mysterious. Then I would write a long report that invariably told a rather sordid tale of greed and bribery on the part of those who sold things to the government and of avarice in the hearts of those who bought them.
And almost always they sat on my reports while somebody else scurried about and patched things over. The reports of mine that did surface were major scandals that were already bubbling so fierecely that it was impossible to keep the lid on. Of these the Peanut Oil King Affair comes to mind. So does the one where some Madison Avenue sharpies ripped off the Office of Economic Opportunity. That one I entitled, “Poverty is Where the Money’s At.”
Thomas never goes overboard with metaphors, but he takes some pride in describing the eyes of powerful men. They are usually ice gray. A few pages later Lucas meets Frank Size, the news columnist offering Lucas a job.
If contempt had a color, it would be the same shade of gray as his eyes, the pale, cold, glittering gray of polished granite in winter rain.
The Money Harvest (1975) While Truman Goff was extraneous in The Porkchoppers, the killers in The Money Harvest make sense as pointed social commentary, even though they are not necessary for the political plot. Perhaps some would brand Thomas a racist for documenting the way rich whites talk about poor blacks without any obvious liberal qualifiers, but I believe he is just being society’s stoolie, warning us about what really happens.
Wheat futures sound like a boring topic for a thriller, but Thomas ratchets up the tension even as he teaches us how the marketplace really works. Chapter 25 is one of the most informative segments I’ve ever read in genre fiction. As far as I can research, it is all true: Jesse Livermore, the Russian commodities scandal of 1972, Mort Sosland and The Southwestern Miller, Butz and Palmby at the Department of Agriculture.]
It was called the Hope Building, and Pope wondered if it offered any to those who rented its offices. It was a narrow, shabby, nine-story building just south of K Street on Fifteenth, which is bordered on the west by McPherson Square. At ten o’clock on the morning of the Fourth of July there were only five people in the square. Four of them were men who were asleep or passed out on the grass. The fifth was an elderly woman who sat on a park bench and talked to herself while she fed the pigeons out of a brown paper sack.
The lobby of the Hope Building smelled of vomit and Lysol and cheap cigars. There were two elevators, but one of them was decorated with an “Out of Order” sign. The sign seemed permanent. There was some green paint on the walls of the lobby that was just beginning to peel. Somebody had thrown up on the floor and a bucket and a mop stood next to the vomit, but nothing had yet yet been done about it.
Pope skirted the vomit and punched the elevator’s up button. When it came, he got in, and punched the number seven button. The elevator’s doors closed and it started moving up, but slowly and with what seemed to be muttered protestations.
At the seventh floor the elevator door clanked open and Pope moved down the hall, guided by the flaked gold paint of an arrow that claimed rooms 701 and 721 were down that way. He stopped in front of the door that had 713 painted on it in black numerals. Beneath the numerals was another painted sign that said, Commodity Jack’s Green Sheet, Inc. Beneath that in smaller letters was, John H. Scurlong, President. Pope knocked and while waiting for somebody to open the door or say who’s there or come in, he checked Commodity Jack’s neighbors. To the left was William Rice, Jobber and Manufacturer’s Representative. To the right was something called Metropolitan Industries, Inc. Across the hall was Sally Simmons Real Estate and Insurance. Pope wondered if they had all managed to scrape up their July rent.
It wasn’t until Pope knocked the second time that something happened behind the door. A bolt was drawn. A key was turned. Another bolt was drawn and still another key was turned. The door opened perhaps and inch and something blue looked out at Pope. He decided that it was an eye. The door opened wider and Commodity Jack Scurlong said, “Now you’d be Jake Pope, wouldn’t you?”
He wasn’t very tall, about five-four, and he wasn’t very heavy, about a hundred pounds if he kept his shoes on, but he was all dressed up and he moved quickly with a funny little prance. He was very old, although he had a curiously young voice, high and light, almost a tenor. Once started, he was hard to shut up.
“Mr. Scurlong?” Pope said.
“Come in, lad. Come in. Ancel Easter said you’d come calling this morning, not that I get many visitors, especially on a holiday like this, but I told Ancel that I’m still on the job seven days a week, just like I’ve always been, because in my business you’ve got to keep your eyes open all the time or the bastards’ll sneak up on your blind side. Now let’s have a cup of coffee, how does that sound?”
“Fine,” Pope said, “It sounds fine.”
“You a drinking man?”
“I take mine this time of morning with two cubes of sugar and a good big slug of straight bourbon, how does that sound?”
“Great,” Pope said.
Commodity Jack reached inside his coat and produced a silver flask. “Holdover from prohibition, lad, now those were the days, I’ll tell you; some real shenanigans going on then. Ever hear of Jesse Livermore?”
“The cotton king.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Old Jessie cornered cotton his first time out, but of course that was in ought-eight, not the twenties. Pity about old Jesse.”
“Why a pity?”
“Walked into the Sherry-Netherland’s men’s bar, Thanksgiving eve it was, all dressed up, grey flannel suit, brand-new shoes, nice blue foulard, blue tab-collar shirt, gold pin, ordered a dry martini, drank her down, walked into the men’s room, and blew his brains out. November 28, 1940. Sorry to hear about it. Distressed. Here’s your coffee.”
“Thanks very much,” Pope said.
The telephone rang. Commodity Jack put down his own cup, picked up the phone, said hello, and then started listening. He picked up a yellow pencil and made notes as he listened. Pope looked around the room while he sipped at his bourbon and coffee. It wasn’t a big room, but neither was it small. It was about the size of what you can get at a Holiday Inn for $32 on a slow night.
One wall was covered with maps. There were maps of the United States, of Russia, of India, of China, of the world, of Argentina, of Africa, and of Australia. There were big maps and little maps and maps that seemed to have been torn from the National Geographic and Scotch-taped on top of other maps. Below the maps was a Reuter’s newsprinter that stuttered and spoke every few minutes. Next to the newsprinter was a radio, a Sony, with lots of dials and knobs and bands that looked as if it could pick up either Moscow or the local police calls, depending upon one’s mood. Across the room was a bookcase that covered the entire wall and was crammed with books and pamphlets and old copies of the Congressional Record and newspapers and magazines. On the floor was a four-foot-high stack of back copies of the New York Journal of Commerce. The wall nearest the corridor was lined with metal, four-drawer filing cabinets, some green, some gray. Just enough space was left for the office door, although it could be opened only partway before it banged into a cabinet. The door itself had four Yale locks and three bolts.
In the middle of all this, near the room’s single window, was the desk. It was an old desk, scratched and scarred, made out of some dark wood and its surface was covered with graphs and charts and clippings and an electric calculator and three telephones, one of which Commodity Jack Scurlong still held to his ear. Next to the desk was the small table that held the electric kettle and the coffee stuff. There was a swivel chair behind the desk. The only other chair in the room was the wooden one with the straight back that Pope sat in.
The only neat thing in the room was Scurlong himself. He wore a white suit that looked as if it were mede out of linen with narrow shoulders, a pinched-in waist, and a belt in the back. Pinned to its lapel was the bud of a red rose. He wore a blue striped shirt with white cuffs and collar. The cuffs were kept closed by gold cuff links and he shot the cuffs every few moments out of what seemed to be nervous habit. His tie was narrow and bright blue and his shoes were black-and-white wing tips. Commodity Jack Scurlong, Pope decided, was something of a dandy.
He must be at least seventy-five, Pope thought, maybe even eighty. But he doesn’t look it. Maybe it’s the way he moves.
Even while he was just listening on the phone Commodity Jack was in action. He shot his cuffs, and winked and smiled, made notes, sipped at his coffee and bourbon, found a comb and ran it through his long, white hair, made some more notes, nodded, grinned, and even smirked, made another note, fiddled with some papers on his desk, pulled at his nose, patted his pockets, found a cigarette, lit it, blew three smoke rings, made a note, winked at Pope, shrugged, took off his rimless glasses, breathed on them, polished them with his tie, put them back on, made another note, and fidgeted constantly as though afraid to sit still.
Scurlong had a thin, busybody face with a little black mustache that contrasted nicely with his white hair. His eyes were blue, sky blue perhaps, and shiny hard. They darted quickly about, noticing this and registering that. The face itself was deeply lined with cracks and tiny crevasses, like a piece of fine old rag paper that had been wadded up and then carelessly smoothed out. He had a pink nose that turned rosy at the tip and beneath the little black mustache was a small mouth that couldn’t be called prim because the little black mustache its ends kept twitching up too much. His teeth were white and shiny and they may not have been his own, but if they were false, they didn’t seem to bother him. There wasn’t much to his chin and this may have bothered him some because every once in a while he would lift it up and thrust it out and hold there for a while until he got tired, or forgot about it.
It was a smart face, Pope decided, maybe not wise, but certainly clever. It was also the face of someone who had made a few mistakes over the years, but refused to brood about them. Pope didn’t think that Commodity Jack Scurlong looked like someone who had much more than a nodding acquaintance with regret.
Finally, the old man said, “Thanks very much,” and hung up the phone. He looked at Pope. “London,” he said.
“On the phone.”
Commodity Jack looked at his watch. “Calls every day about this time. Later over there, you know. Time change. Market just closed. Expensive, though, these calls. Terrible phone bill. Ghastly. Well, now, Ancel said you want a crash course. Never heard the phrase before. Figured it out. Means intensive instruction, right?”
“You interested in going into the market?”
“No. I’m interested in finding out about it, though.”
“Ever play the stock market?”
“Yes. A little a few years back.”
“Never fiddled with commodities, though.”
“Thought not. I can tell. Don’t know how, but I can. Look at a chap and tell whether he’s been in commodities or had gonorrhea. Don’t know why, but I can. Never had the clap, did you?”
“No,” Pope said, “I never did.”
“See. Some kind of second sight. Useful sometimes. Well, where should we start? Better have a dab more of this first.” He reached into his breast pocket, hopped around the desk, and poured another generous jolt of bourbon into Pope’s half-empty cup. “Second wing. Fly now. Well, commodities. What are commodities, Mr. Pope?”
“They’re various agricultural products, wheat, corn, oats, barley, soybeans, cotton, things like that. In recent years they’ve included other items. Frozen orange juice, Silver. Lumber. Plywood, and so forth.”
“And what are done with these commodities?”
“Well, they’re bought and sold.”
“In various exchanges. Let’s see. There’s the Chicago Board of Trade, it deals in wheat and soybeans and stuff like that. And the Chicago Mercantile Exchange which goes for eggs, live cattle, pork bellies, and sorghums, I think. Then there’s New York and Kansas City and other exchanges around the country.”
“And who does the buying and selling?”
“Brokers acting for their clients. Professional traders with the big companies. Speculators.”
“Speculators, you say?”
“Nasty word, isn’t it? Spec-u-la-tors. Makes you think of shifty-eyed chaps, dollar signs on their vests, big jowls, big cigars, fists full of money. Diamonds on their pinkies. Chaps like that. Terrible.”
“Nobody seems to mind,” Pope said.
“Speculators in the commodity markets. You invest in the stock market, but you speculate in the commodity market. Why?”
“Excellent point. First-class point. Good mind, sir. Well, now, you can buy a share of stock and it’s yours to hold and keep forever. It can go down, up, or stay the same forever. But it’s yours. Right?”
“It’s an in-vest-ment. But let’s take five thousand bushels of wheat. That’s what’s called a futures contract. You go to your commodity broker. You say, ‘My Uncle Orville out in Montana’s got a wheat farm and he tells me wheat’s going through the ceiling. How can I cash in on this wonderful piece of inside dope?’ Well, sir, you make a down payment on 5,000 bushels of wheat. That’s called a margin. Your down payment is about 75 cents a bushel. Wheat’s selling for say, $5 a bushel. Terrible price. Your margin is about fifteen percent. Used to be less, but wheat got volatile, brokers got burned, margin went up. Clear so far?”
“Perfectly,” Pope said.
“Okay. But your uncle in Montana told you that wheat wasn’t going up right away, it was going up in maybe two or three weeks. Big jump then. But you want to buy cheap now and sell high in the fu-ture — mark that word — fu-ture. So you make your down payment, or margin, of fifteen percent on 5,000 bushels of wheat at $5 a bushel. That’s what everybody but your uncle in Montana think’s wheat’s going to be selling for in September. That’s called a wheat future. So for a down payment of $750 you control 5,000 bushels of wheat that’s worth $25,000. Now when you signed up for your wheat, you signed a contract. You promised to accept delivery of 5,000 bushels of wheat at $5 a bushel from somebody in September. You don’t know who. You don’t really care. But it’s somebody who doesn’t give a damn what your uncle out in Montana says. This somebody, whoever he is, is selling you 5,000 bushels of September wheat at $5 a bushel. You want to know why? Because he thinks that the price of wheat’s going to drop. Of course, he’s selling something he doesn’t own. Never will own, probably. But he’s got a contract, too. He’s got to deliver that 5,000 bushels of wheat to you in September. Clear so far?”
“Sure,” Pope said.
“Well, you’ve gone long in the wheat market and the chap you bought your wheat from has gone short. That’s what it’s called. You think the price is going to rise. He thinks it’s going to fall. If it goes up enough, you sell. If it goes down enough, say to $4.50 a bushel, he steps into the market and buys 5,000 bushels of wheat at $4.50 a bushel. Now he’s already sold you 5,000 bushels of wheat at $5 a bushel. But when delivery time comes, he can pay you off with wheat that cost him only $4.50 a bushel. So he’s made 50 cents a bushel on 5,000 bushels which is $2,500. That’s off an investment of $750, which was his margin or down payment. Not bad, huh?”
“Not bad,” Pope said.
“Ah, but suppose the price of wheat went up, like your uncle out in Montana said. When you bought your September wheat it was $5.00 a bushel. But it goes to $5.50. So what do you do? You sell. Now who buys it? Well, the chap who promised to deliver you 5,000 bushels of wheat has still got to do it. It’s in his contract. He sold you something that he didn’t own. He went short. Now he has to go out and buy it. But what does he find? Five dollars and fifty cents a bushel for wheat. That’s what. So he has to come up with the extra fifty cents a bushel and instead of making $2,500 on his contract, he loses that much.”
“You should write a book,” Pope said.
Commodity Jack shook his head. “Spec-u-la-tion is gambling pure and simple. You’re betting that the price of something that you never see and never own will rise or fall. Back in sixty-four the value of all futures contracts was a little over $60 billion. Now, it’s around $340 billion. It’s getting too big. Too fat.”
“What’s going to happen?” Pope said.
“Collapse. Disaster. A wipeout. Maybe next year or the year after. Total ruin. Awful to think of. They excuse speculation, of course. Say it provides a liquid market. Pure poppycock. Crap game, that’s what it is. Look at what Russians did. Smart. Clever. Mean, too. Hoodwinked everybody. Especially chaps at Department of Agriculture. Poor sods. Russians come in. Take out checkbooks. Buy 333 million bushels of wheat. More than 246 million bushels of corn. Barley. Sorghums. Soybeans. God knows what. Bought wheat at $1.67 a bushel. Cash on the barrelhead. Poor old Nixon out in San Clemente. He announces big deal. Wonderful news. Russkies going to buy $750 million worth of U.S. grains over next five years. They’d already bought $500 million worth and he didn’t even know it.”
“Somebody must have known it,” Pope said.
“That was back in seventy-two,” Commodity Jack said, shaking his head. “Everybody in the commodity market. Cab drivers. Little old ladies. Doctors. Bartenders. People like that. All going short. Wheat selling for $1.67. Everybody swore it would go down to $1.47. Maybe even $1.40. Everybody got fooled. By year’s end it had hit $2.70 and was still climbing.”
“Nobody went long, huh?”
Commodity Jack tapped his thin chest. “My people. I told ‘em to go long. Curious thing. Kept getting these calls from London. Chap told me his name was Mr. Smith. Nice-sounding chap. Told me every move the Russkies made. Checked it out. Found it true. Put it in the Green Sheet. My people cleaned up. Wretched business.”
“This guy Smith. Did he tell anyone else?” Pope said.
“Told a chap out in Kansas City. Mort Sosland. Editor of something called The Southwestern Miller. Kept calling him, too. Mr. Smith, I mean. Must have run up a tremendous phone bill. Long way from London to Kansas City. Never did find out who Smith really was. Most knowledgable chap though. Probably Chinese.”
“So what happened?”
“The Russkies slickered us. That’s what. All legitimate. Cost taxpayers, of course. About $300 million in shipping subsidies. That’s Department of Agriculture’s fault. Terrible incompetence. Unbelievable. Senate got mad about it. Called policy inadequate, shortsighted, dictated by outmoded prin-ci-ples. Strong language.”
“Who’s fault was it?”
“Old man Butz. Secretary of Agriculture then. Chap named Palmby, too. He took a nice job with a big grain firm. Created lot of suspicion. Nothing proved though. Exonerated. Hah.”
“What about the Commodity Exchange Authority, the CEA?”
“Bumblers. Bumbled then, bumble now. Got tip that somebody was rigging Kansas City market. Looked into it. Spent nineteen hundred man hours on it. Lot of hours. But they spent it looking up the wrong facts. Incredible.”
“Suppose somebody wanted to rig the market, the wheat market say. How would they go about it?”
“Rumor, that’s how. Market dotes on rumor. Two types of speculators, actually. Chartists and Fundamentalists. Chartists stick to analysis of price movements. Draw up nice little charts. Charts tell ‘em when to sell, when to buy, when to go to the bathroom. Fundamentalists misnamed, of course. They take big picture. Weather, famine, governments, things like that. One chap I know, fundamentalist. Went grocery shopping with wife. Bacon $1.80 a pound. Wife refused to buy. Chap went to phone, called broker, told him to sell hog bellies short. Reasoned that if his wife wouldn’t buy, other wives wouldn’t until price dropped. It did. Chap cleaned up. Made a packet. Another example. Spoke of old Jesse Livermore earlier.”
“The cotton king,” Pope said.
“Exactly. First time out, Jesse bought cotton. Quiet moves. Gradual. Found himself long 120,000 bales. Rising market. He made it rise, of course. But who would buy? Found a newspaperman on old New York World. Fine paper. Headline next morning, ‘July Cotton Cornered by Jesse Livermore.’ The shorts covered; the suckers rushed in to buy, Jesse unloaded. Very slick.”
Now the lead starts asking questions relevant to the plot, and it becomes clear that Thomas started his novel specifically in response to the Russian scandal of 1972.
Ian Fleming is not always thought of as a serious writer, but some of his best chapters may have been an influence on Thomas. “Ancel sending Pope to Scurlong to learn about commodities” is strikingly similar to “M sending Bond to Colonel Smithers to learn about gold.”
Yellow Dog Contract (1976) The last first-person thriller returns to the world of unions. There’s a lot dirty work, of course, but also some superb passages describing “straight” politics.
When I first met William Corsing he had been the thirty-year-old boy mayor of St. Louis. That was in 1966. He had very badly wanted to be the boy senator from Missouri, but nobody gave him much of a chance, in fact, none at all, and that’s why I had been called in. After a rather bitter campaign, nasty even for Missouri politics, he had squeaked in by less than 126 votes after a statewide recount. In 1972 he had run against the Nixon tide and won by fifty thousand votes. He was now forty-two, still young for the Senate, but nobody called him the boy anything anymore.
I sat down in one of the leather chairs and instead of going around behind the desk and sitting behind it, Corsing sat down in a chair next to me. It was a nice touch, and I didn’t mind at all.
Jenny was the tall brunette with the wise eyes and she and the Senator must have used telepathy to communicate, because as soon as we were seated she came into the office bearing a tray with two cups of coffee. “You use one spoonful of sugar, don’t you, Mr. Longmire?” she said and gave me another one of her wry smiles.
I looked at Corsing. “Hell,” he said and grinned, “that’s one you taught me. Always remember what they drink and what they use in their coffee.”
Speaking of drinking, by this time I believe Thomas himself was AA, or at least thinking about joining. However, that didn’t stop his characters from indulging.
I watched as Murfin rose, went over to his suitcase, and starting unpacking. The first thing he unpacked was a fifth of Early Times bourbon that he set up on a dresser. I got up and went into the bathroom and came back with two glasses. I poured some of the bourbon into each glass and then went back into the bathroom and ran some cold water into the drinks. It was a kind of ritual that Murfin and I had observed when we traveled together. He brought the bourbon and I mixed the drinks.
Many Thomas characters drink this humble beverage: mid-range scotch or bourbon mixed with hotel tap water. I hereby name this drink “The Ross Thomas.”
I love Yellow Dog Contract until the end, where we are supposed to believe that the game was rigged against the hero to an absurd degree. The form is almost circular, an unsatisfying merry-go-round of endless deceit.
There is also the problem of so many violent deaths. In the final chapter, someone says, “… That’s why they decided to put a lid on it.” Put a Lid On It is the title of a late Donald E. Westlake political thriller. It was written after Thomas died, so possibly it’s a kind of tribute: Westlake certainly loved Ross Thomas. Put a Lid On It can also almost be seen as a mild corrective, since Westlake tells his Thomas-style tale without a single murder, an approach that strengthens his frame.
Ultimately, any really good Thomas is more charismatic than Put a Lid On It (although if you understand Westlake’s subtle music, it’s delightful read). But that charisma isn’t due to the relentless body count. Indeed, the hail of gunfire at the end of every Thomas book seems conventional. I wonder if it could have worked for Thomas to dial down the violence, especially since successful political shenanigans in the real world are hardly ever accompanied by multiple murders.
Chinaman’s Chance (1978) The first paragraph is famous.
The pretender to the Emperor’s Throne was a fat thirty-seven-year-old Chinaman called Artie Wu who always jogged along Malibu Beach right after dawn even in summer, when dawn came round as early as 4:42. It was while jogging along the beach just east of the Paradise Cove pier that he tripped over a dead pelican, fell, and met the man with six greyhounds. It was the sixteenth of June, a Thursday.
I don’t need to quote any more: if you’ve gotten this far in my essay, you’ve almost certainly read the fan favorite. Every sentence is fabulous, the partnership of Quincy Durant and Artie Wu is immortal. You just can’t put this book down once you’ve started it. Thomas had recently moved to Southern California and perhaps the change of scene contributes to the book’s lightfooted drive. When taking a scalpel to the social register, Thomas finds Malibu just as plump a target as Washington, D.C.
In addition to Durant and Wu, Chinaman’s Chance has a bunch of other terrific characters. A round of applause, please, for Maurice Overby, called “Otherguy” because whenever the cops pick him up (as they frequently do), they have to release him because it was some other guy.
However, Chinaman’s Chance suffers from one of Thomas’s least believable plots, creaking along to the end on the uncertain fuel of coincidence and duplicity. The father-brother-son stuff at the end is really unnecessary.
So far in the canon, the best Thomas books are The Seersucker Whipsaw, The Fools in Town are On Our Side, The Porkchoppers, If You Can’t Be Good, and The Money Harvest. So, if you only know and love Chinaman’s Chance, keep reading.
Fortunately Durant, Wu, and Otherguy will return in two more books, Out On the Rim and Voodoo, LTD.
The Eighth Dwarf (1979) Thomas experiments with a historical novel set in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Len Deighton did the occasional WW II book too (I’ve read Bomber and Winter), and in every case these books interest me less. Thomas and Deighton can’t be faulted on their research; however, the amusing ironical stance their heroes usually take against contemporary culture is inevitably lessened in these historical narratives. I miss it.
This may be just me, though, since all these books have fans. There certainly are some great paragraphs in The Eighth Dwarf.
[Robert Henry Orr] never earned a degree anywhere, but in July of 1941 he was either the sixth or seventh man hired by Colonel William J. Donovan for the Office of the Coordinator of Information, which, after a number of twists and turns, was to become the OSS.
It was in the OSS that Orr had discovered his true calling: he was a born conniver. Although he was given the title of deputy director of personnel, his real job had been to champion the OSS cause against its most implacable enemy, the Washington bureaucracy. For weapons he had used his brilliance, his by now immense girth, his bristling beard, his wicked tongue, and his encyclopedic knowledge about everything. He had awed Congress, intimidated the State Department flummoxed the military, and deceived them all. Most of the strange collection of savants, con men, playboys, freebooters, patriots, socialites, fools, geniuses, college boys, and adventurers who composed the OSS had adored him and called him Nanny. Many of them had needed one.
The Mordida Man (1981) Thomas’s favorite character, the go-between, returns as Chubb Dunjee (now called the mordida or “bribe” man), pulled out of retirement to work a tricky political kidnapping. The first 75 pages are solid, but Thomas clicks into high gear with the entrance of Alex Reese in chapter eleven:
When Thane Coombs, the Director of Central Intelligence, came into his large seventh-floor office in the Agency’s Langley headquarters, he had to wake up the big bald-headed man who sat slumped asleep in the bolted-down armchair.
Six of the bolted-down chairs, all identical, formed a semicircle around Coombs’s desk. They were the first thing he had ordered after being sworn in as DCI. The radius of the semicircle formed by the chairs was exactly six feet — which, Coombs had calculated, was exactly the distance needed to keep him from smelling the breath of others. As DCI, Coombs saw no reason why he should have to. He had a sensitive nose and wanted to use it to smell his roses — not breaths that reeked of cigarettes, alcohol, and decaying teeth, and especially not poor digestion brought on by ambition and fear and bad marriages.
As he walked over and snapped his fingers in the big man’s left ear, Coombs wrinkled his nose because he could smell whisky and cigarettes and garlic and Scope and probably just a trace of marijuana. It was how the big man nearly always smelled.
The sleeping man’s name was Alex Reese, and he awoke instantly with apology, but with his inevitable comment, “Must have dozed off there for a moment.”
Reese could sleep anywhere, anytime, and often did. He stood six-four and weighed 270 pounds, and a lot of it, although not all, had settled around his gut. He was a man who scoffed at all gods and demons, held most of mankind in utter contempt, and wasn’t particularly fond of animals. Nine years of his life had been spent with the FBI and twelve with the CIA. He drank a fifth of cheap whiskey a day, much of it before noon, and had been hired by the CIA four times, fired three, and given two medals in private ceremonies, only to see them snatched back and locked away in the name of national security. He was forty-four years old, thrice married and divorced, and was now sexually inclined toward teen-age girls, whom he pursued shamelessly. Had it not been for his mind, he would have been impossible. His mind was extraordinary.
After some hilarious byplay between the DCI and the rogue agent, Reese is described further.
“Wonderful,” Reese said and split his face with a happy, yellowish smile. Above the smile was a big nose that leaned right, then left, then right again. On either side of it two secretive gray eyes gazed out on the world with what seemed to be total disbelief. Thick eyebrows like furry hedgerows guarded a forehead whose thought wrinkles went up and up, and then up some more to where they reached where the hairline would have been, if there had been any hair, which there wasn’t except for the grayish brown stuff that still sprouted around the ears and down on the nape of the neck. Below all this was an aggressive chin almost as big as a fist. It was an ugly, but somehow wise face, strangely medieval, and strangely corrupt.
Whenever they can, Thomas’s heroes demand first-class seating and free drinks. Looking again at his CV, one can imagine that Thomas treated himself right on the company dime a few times. No other thriller writer details an expense account quite like this:
After his meeting with Chubb Dunjee the afternoon before, Paul Grimes had gone directly to Heathrow and boarded British Airways flight 189 to Dulles. Flight 189 was the Concorde, which Grimes always took when someone else was paying the $1,508 fare. In this instance the someone else was the President of the United States.
The Mordida Man will satisfy Thomas fans, yet it doesn’t rank among his finest work. The plot can’t be faulted, as it goes in a smooth straight line with no extra knots at the end. Perhaps the focus on international settings gives it a slightly false tone. Some of the far-flung action scenes could come from a more generic place: Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum, or their many imitators.
Missionary Stew (1983) I suspect I know who Ross Thomas wanted to be. Ross Thomas wanted to be Draper Haere.
[Haere, in a Denver hotel] turned to his bag, took out a bottle of Scotch, poured some into a glass, added water from the bathroom tap, crossed to the window, and gazed out across Broadway at the tall bank building, which now stood on the site of the long-demolished Shirley-Savoy Hotel, an old pols’ hotel in whose rooms Haere recalled more than a few sexual and political adventures. For some reason, sex and politics for Haere had always gone hand in hand.
Deciding he didn’t really need or want any old memories that night, Haere finished his drink, brushed his teeth, and got into bed with his illicit bedtime reading, which had been flown to him in New York by Purolator Courier from Sacramento.
It was a special bootleg copy, fresh off the Xerox machine, of a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the voting in California during the just-over election. It was also nothing but a long, long list of names and figures, although to Draper Haere it was a wonderful tale of glorious victory and ignoble defeat, which he read avidly until he fell asleep just before he reached Ventura County.
Because of his almost saintly looks, Haere was the first person trusting strangers turned to with their tales of despair and their questions about how to get to Disneyland. Haere could have been a world-class confidence man. He had instead gone into politics on the nuts-and-bolts side, and nearly everyone agreed that he was the best there was at his particular speciality, which was writing letters to people and getting money back in the mail.
[Haere hosts a pair of FBI agents in his office in Venice, California] Yarn sat down on the leather couch that had once graced the Washington office of Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Tighe chose the padded walnut armchair that had been in Henry Agard Wallace’s Capitol office when Wallace was Roosevelt’s Vice-President. Haere sat in the old high-backed easy chair he almost always sat in, the Baton Rouge chair, which a dealer in Opelousas had sworn was the last chair Huey Long ever sat in before he was gunned down in 1935. Haere collected political furniture. Political mavericks’ furniture, to be precise. For a year now he had been dickering with a man in Tulsa for a brass spittoon that the almost forgotten Alfalfa Bill Murray of Oklahoma was said to have been partial to.
Haere is just one of the many superb characters in the ensemble production of Missionary Stew. The plot is full of convoluted back-biting, but this time it makes more sense, especially since everyone knows and discusses the complicated knots as early as halfway through the book. It’s a hilarious take-down of modern California framed by serious events set in Third Worlds. The overture is disquieting and the denouement is satisfying. Missionary Stew is the perfect introduction to Ross Thomas. It should replace Chinaman’s Chance as the fan favorite.
Briarpatch (1984) Just as good is Briarpatch, one of Thomas’s more famous titles, thanks to an Edgar as Best Mystery/Suspense Novel of the Year.
The topic of avenging and defending your kin is a bit more conventional and sentimental than standard Thomas fare, which is probably why this book got the award (instead of, say, Missionary Stew). When reading all of Thomas in sequence, it becomes clear that Briarpatch is darker in tone, almost coming with the cliché tag-line, “This time it’s personal.”
Indeed, the unnamed town is modeled closely on his hometown Oklahoma City. Thomas is getting a bit of his own back here! Casual research suggests Thomas has reason to poke fun at the corrupt Gaylord publishing empire, the same folks for whom Thomas once covered sports. (Benjamin Dill spends a full page dismantling the local Tribune—aka The Daily Oklahoman—concluding that it is “still the same rotten prosperous newspaper it always had been.”) And if you know that Oklahoma Governor Alfalfa Bill Murray won on a platform against “The Three C’s– Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and Coons,” the scenes with one of Thomas’s best black characters, Harry the Waiter, take on extra weight.
Before Dill goes home to find out why his sister was killed, a D.C. sally reminds us that this investigation is going to be more cynical than most Edgar-winning detective stories. Of course, for “Benjamin Dill,” read “Ross Thomas.”
To Benjamin Dill the corridors of the Carroll Arms still reeked of old-style tag-team politics, and of its cheap scent and loveless sex and hundred-proof bourbon and cigars that came wrapped in cellophane and were sold for a quarter one and two at a time. Although he considered himself a political agnostic, Dill liked most politicians — and most laborskates and consumer fussbudgets and civil rights practitioners and professional whale watchers and tree huggers and antinuke nuts and almost anyone who would rise from one of the wooden folding chairs at the Tuesday night meeting in the basement of the Unitarian church and earnestly demand to know “what we here tonight can do about this.” Dill had long since despaired that there was not much anyone could do about anything, but those that still believed there was interested him and he found them, for the most part, amusing company and witty conversationalists.
Once again, a male partnership is central to the plot. The phrase “asshole buddies” recurs in the Thomas canon almost as often as brown liquor in hotel rooms or icy gray eyes. For Thomas, “asshole buddies” doesn’t mean something sexual, but “a guy and his friend who did a lot of dumb and dicey stuff together once and now will cover each other’s ass, no matter what.”
Back home, Dill meets up with Jake Spivey, the boy he was poor with, learned dirty tricks with, and lost his virginity with (to the same prostitute). Spivey is out on a limb, and Dill works for a non-enforcement side of the law. A kind of climax comes as Dill sits in his hotel room late at night, drinking a Ross Thomas and wondering what to do now that another wanted man has come to town.
Dill was trying to decide which telephone call to make first. He thought there was a possibility that the calls, and especially the order they were made in, might affect the lives of the called in years to come. Because he was having trouble deciding on the order, Dill accused himself of philosophical flabbiness — of letting mere friendship get in the way of duty and responsibility and other such moral obligations. You’ve come down with a bad case of the qualms, he told himself, and the best cure for that is logic.
He writes four names down including old pal Spivey’s and has another drink.
You should cover your ass, he thought. You should go down to the lobby and use the pay phone because someday, maybe even years from now, a neat blue suit with a shiny plastic government issue briefcase will drop by the hotel and demand the records of the phone calls made by a certain Benjamin Dill on that morning of August sixth — on that same hot August morning when he buried his sister and tipped off the notorious international fugitive John Jacob Spivey. Ask yourself, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, did Dill do this for gain, or for personal profit — or for any motive that you or I could possibly understand? He did not. He did it out of something he describes as friendship, out of something he calls loyalty. And just what was the basis for this alleged loyalty? Why, Dill would have you believe that he and Spivey were once pals, mates, boyhood chums — even asshole buddies. Now I ask you, members of the jury, what kind of sociopath would be asshole buddies with the likes of John Jacob Spivey, the most wanted man in the world? And so forth and so on, Dill thought as he sighed, picked up the telephone, and dialed a number.
The phone rang nine times, then ten, and finally, on the eleventh ring, was answered with a gruff, sleepy, “Who the fuck is this?”
“Your asshole buddy, Benjamin Dill.”
“You drunk?” Spivey asked.
“Lemme get a cigarette.”
Spivey doesn’t respond as Dill expected, even chuckling to Dill, “You know what you are, Pick? You’re all mush.”
After he hung up, Dill felt as if he had spent the past hour or so wandering through a vast and largely uncharted land with one of those ancient maps that read: Here There Be Monsters. Dill knew the map was right. He had come this way before. Yet, you still don’t believe they really exist — the monsters. No, that’s wrong. You believe they exist all right, but after fifteen years of watching them, writing about them, and even tracking them down, you still think they’re normal, harmless and domesticated. Even housebroken.
But what if they, after all, are the norm and you are the aberration? The thought enchanted Dill. Its simplicity was compelling, its implicit offer of absolution irresistible. He was so pleased with the whiskey-inspired notion that he poured the last of the Old Smuggler into a glass and drank it down.
I was too young to understand Briarpatch when I tried it for the first time. Thomas doesn’t make it easy, you have to pick up clues as you go along. Of course, when you realize how smart you need to be, it is all that more satisfying a read.
Out On the Rim (1987) Carmody’s article explains that “Thomas eventually was a squad leader in the Americal Division during two Philippine campaigns. He remembers killing several Japanese up close during an incident in the Sebu invasion.” The terrifying prelude of Out On the Rim draws on these experiences, but the caper that follows is inspired by current events.
During the next half hour Stallings and Crites drank three cups of coffee and discussed the recent not quite bloodless February revolution in the Philippines. They touched on Ferdinand Marcos’ exile to Hawaii; Imelda’s shoes; the shambles the Filipino economy was in; the disastrous world price of sugar; Mrs. Aquino’s prospects as President (dicey, both agreed); and whether it was four or eight billion dollars that Marcos had managed to squirrel away. After discovering that neither apparently knew much more than what he had read, or seen on television, they returned to Alejandro Espiritu.
Crites wants Stallings to offer terrorist leader Espiritu five million dollars to come down out of the hills and play nice. What? Booth Stallings knows he needs help, so his son-in-law recommends Arthur Wu and Quincy Durant. They soon pick up Otherguy Overby and new face Georgia Blue to complete a terrific quintet.
Ross Thomas places himself in the book when Stalling talks about being an author.
Overby nodded comfortably, as if if the last few pieces had clicked into place. “….I went down to the Malibu Library and checked out the book of yours, Anatomy of Terrorism.”
“Anatomy of Terror,” Stallings said, unable to resist the correction.
“Yeah. Right. Well, I read it. Most of it, in fact, but then I quit about three-quarters though. Want to know why?”
“Because I couldn’t figure out whose side you were on.”
“Good,” Booth Stallings said.
Out on the Rim begins as a delight, but once again, the plot becomes incredibly convoluted. The seams are obvious when Artie Wu comes up with a plan during the team meeting at the Peninsula Hotel.
Durant looked at his watch when Wu began to talk. He talked steadily and confidently, as if from a carefully prepared outline. With a change of pitch, he even dropped in the occasional footnote exactly where needed….There was a final summary paragraph and Wu was done. Durant looked at his watch. Wu had spoken without pause or interruption for exactly 26 minutes.
Thomas should have told us what Wu said! Or at least outlined it himself. But we never understand very clearly how the con is supposed to go down. Clarity is crucial because the double-crossing begins almost immediately.
Rim reminds me of a lesser Oliver Bleeck, Protocol for a Kidnapping, where another American team leaves home knowing the game is hopelessly corrupt but somehow thinking they can make the plan work on a distant shore. It’s particularly frustrating in Out of the Rim since we care so much about these great characters.
The Fourth Durango (1989) This time the asshole buddies are Jack Adair and Kelly Vines. How did Thomas keep coming up with new talent? These male duos have similarities from book to book but remain distinctive—unlike, say, the non-series characters of Dick Francis and Elmore Leonard, most of which seem interchangeable.
Adair’s anger evaporated. Color returned to his cheeks and curiosity to his expression. “I thank you, Kelly,” he said with a careful formality. “But I’ve got to say it was a goddamned dumb thing for you to do.”
“It’s also a felony. You were set up, Jack. But without the money, they have no case. At least not one they can win.”
Adair swivelled around in his chair so he could look across the street at the almost new building where the governor worked. “They’ll try, though, won’t they?”
“And what d’you suppose they’ll poke around in?”
“The usual: your bank accounts, safety-deposit boxes, assets, investments, tax returns.”
“Tax returns,” Adair said to the building across the street.
The silence began then. It was one of those ominous silences that seldom lasts very long because somebody coughs or clears his throat before somebody else screams. Kelly Vines ended the silence in the chambers of the chief justice with a murmured question, “What’s the problem, Jack?”
Adair swivelled around to face him and spoke in a voice without inflection. It was a tone Vines instantly recognized because he had heard it often from clients who, when all hope was gone, used it to describe their transgressions without emotion or embellishment. It was, Vines had learned, the voice of truth.
“Four years ago,” Adair said, “I told the payroll folks to start taking double state and Federal withholding out of my salary. I figured the additional withholding would make me come out about even with the tax people at the end of the year and take care of whatever tax I might owe on interest, dividends and other outside income.”
“Very prudent,” Vines said.
“The thing is,” Adair said, “I forgot to file my state and Federal returns that first year. When I finally remembered, I just kept putting it off. And when nothing happened, I just kept putting it off.”
“For how long?”
“As I said, four years now.”
“They’ve got you, Jack.”
“You could have gone to H and R Block, for Christsake. You could’ve let Eunice handle it for you. You could’ve — aw, shit — it just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Procrastination rarely does.”
There was nothing ominous or threatening about the new silence that developed. Rather it was the sad kind sometimes experienced at graveside services when no one can think for anything to say, good or bad, about the dead.
After after so many years of dealing mostly with testosterone, Thomas has finally gotten better at writing about women. Georgia Blue was a step in the right direction, but the mayor of Durango, B.D. Huckins, is perfect. I don’t really see the right description of her to quote here—you’ll have to read the book yourself—but you can get a taste from the following discussion:
Handshaw Park had been called simply City Park until B.D. Hawkins was elected mayor. She renamed it after Dicky Handshaw, who had served four terms as mayor until Huckins beat him in the 1978 election, which was still remembered as the most vicious in the city’s 148-year history.
Renaming the park at first seemed to be a nice conciliatory gesture. But that was before word had got around of an exchange in the Blue Eagle bar between Norm Trice and a prominent local attorney who regarded himself as a budding political savant. The attorney had claimed that the next time out B.D. Hawkins could easily be defeated by almost any candidate with balls and a few brains.
“Like you, huh?” Trice had asked.
“Sure. Like me. Why not?”
“Because,” Trice explained in a patient voice, “B.D. didn’t name that park after Dicky Handshaw so folks’d remember him. She did it so guys like you’d remember what happened to him.”
The Fourth Durango is once again filled with terrific little vignettes and sardonic commentary for and against California life. The plot is tricky, but you know where you are at all times. A keeper.
Twilight at Mac’s Place (1990) An interview in Der Speigel suggests that Thomas knew there would only be three more books. While not elegiac in tone, they can be seen as one last Mac and Padillo, one last Wu and Durant, and one last unconventional fish à la Missionary Stew or The Fourth Durango.
Unlike the previous three installments of Mac and Padillo, Twilight is in third-person, and comparison with the earlier books shows how much Thomas’s style has matured and solidifed. The set pieces featuring the aging duo and their restaurant—Padillo says, “The sort of place you go when you have to meet someone and explain why you won’t be getting the divorce after all”—rub up comfortably with the main hero, Granville Haynes, a young troublemaker who (of course) tries to work both ends against the middle.
Granville’s dad has died, perhaps leaving a memoir the CIA may wish to suppress. The “forbidden book” plot was executed most perfectly by Brian Garfield in Hopscotch, although there are other nice examples like Charles McCarry’s The Secret Lovers. But even more than those espionage antecedents I was reminded of all those P.G. Wodehouse books where a doddering old noble terrifies the slightly younger dowagers with the threat of a tell-all about drinking and dancing in the Gay ’90s.
I also thought of The Mordida Man. Like that earlier Thomas, the book really gets going with a humorous meeting inside Langley. It’s a shame that Thomas never wrote a whole book from the perspective of a desk job inside the Company, a kind of espionage The Porkchoppers.
At seven o’clock that same Saturday morning, Hamilton Keyes, the courtly CIA careerist, had received a wake-up call summoning him to Langley for an emergency meeting at nine. When he arrived at 8:45, another caller informed him the meeting had been postponed until noon.
Keyes’s office phone rang again at 11:45 A.M., and yet a different caller told him, without apology or explanation, that the meeting wouldn’t be held until three in the afternoon, or possibly even four. It was then that Keyes recognized the nearby sound of the woodman’s ax in the bureaucratic forest.
Just to make certain, Keyes made two brief phone calls and, once they were completed, began removing all personal effects from his 137-year-old rosewood desk and placing them in his own 105-year-old walnut wastebasket. With that done, he uncapped a fountain pen, wrote the date at the top of a sheet of personal stationery and began a letter of resignation.
Although they had never met, Keyes knew the man’s background, reputation, and of course, his name, C. Robert Pall. He also remembered that the C. stood for Clair; that Pall held a doctorate in economics from Chicago and had served three terms as a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania until being trounced in 1986. Before serving in Congress, Pall had taught at Stanford and the Wharton school; summered at number of prosperous think tanks; written a couple of The-End-Is-Nigh books; and, less than two years ago, signed on with the Bush campaign as what Pall himself had called its “token troglodyte.”
After putting the phone down, he smiled at Keyes without displaying any teeth and said, “You must be Hamilton Keyes. I’m Bob Paul, the FNG.”
Although the acronym was hopelessly inappropriate and dated back at least twenty years to Vietnam and Laos, Keyes nodded politely and said, “The Fucking New Guy.”
Pall enlarged the smile to reveal a top row of light gray teeth. “You wanta beat around the bush or not?”
Keyes looked at his watch. “Not really. I presume the White House sent you out to do the deed?”
Pall stopped smiling and nodded, serious now, even grave. “We’ve got a whole lot of past-due bills, political stuff, and need your slot and some others to pay ‘em off with. Nothing personal. Fact is, everybody I’ve talked to says you do one hell of a job.”
After acknowledging the compliment with a slight smile that vanished almost instantly, Keyes removed the sealed envelope that contained the letter he had written and placed it on the desk.
Frowning at the unexpected, Pall picked up the envelope, used a thumb to rip it open, fumbled a pair of glasses from his shirt pocket and read the letter at a glance. His frown disappeared. “Okay. Great. You’re taking early retirement.” He looked up from the letter. “But, hey, there’s no big rush. Next week, the week after, that’ll be soon enough.”
“I see no reason to prolong things.”
“What about the hand-over?”
“Everything my successor needs is in the files and he’ll probably be ecstatic that I’m no longer underfoot.”
Pall rose with a grin that displayed most of the light gray teeth. “After listening to sniffles all day from a bunch of crybabies, it’s a treat to run across a grown-up.” He held out his hand and added, “Anything else you’d like to mention?”
I can’t quote more—I’d be giving too much away. But suffice it to say that this scene just gets better.
Ultimately, as with the earlier Mac and Padillo books, Twilight is not my favorite, especially since the plot has at least one extra knot. However, it’s the last book set only in Washington D.C., so every paragraph of city description should be treasured.
Voodoo, Ltd. (1992) Arthur Wu and Quincy Durant amble back on stage with Booth Stallings, Maurice “Otherguy” Overby, and Georgia Blue. Thomas dissolved the quintet rather definitively at the end of Out on the Rim so it’s rather a surprise to find them reunited.
I kept thinking, “Thomas puts the band back together again.” These are some of his best characters, and he wanted one last reunion tour. Unlike previous books, they all finally watch each other’s backs. It’s astonishingly touching. I doubt it would have the same impact if you don’t know the rest of the canon, but for me it is a superb capstone.
The book isn’t particularly political in nature, but Thomas can’t resist a few jabs, first at the Philippines, conversing with a communist character from Out on the Rim.
Minnie Espiritu leaned back in her chair, studied him gravely, then smiled and said, “Sit down, Booth.”
There was a short silence until Stallings said, “Those two kids gave me a tour. Everything’s falling apart, isn’t it?”
She sighed first, then nodded and said, “They traded Marcos-style graft for the Aquino brand and now everybody’s shocked that there’s not a damn bit of difference. Our economy’s a basket case but all we do is squabble with Washington over those lousy military bases. You know something, Booth? We slid from a third world country into a fourth world catastrophe, right down there with Bangladesh, and nobody’s noticed and nobody’s cared.”
“How goes the revolution, Minnie?”
“The Berlin Wall almost squashed it. But we’re still struggling. Somebody has to — although I sometimes think if it was really up to me, I’d sell it all to the Japanese and let them turn it into golf courses and whorehouses.”
And he can’t resist calling it like it is back home.
Georgia Blue entered the bedroom, wearing her new raincoat as a bathrobe and carrying two glasses and a bottle of J&B Scotch.
“I thought we’d have a nightcap,” she said, placing the glasses and bottle on the dresser. “Water?”
“In the bathroom.”
She poured two generous measures of whisky, carried the glasses into the bathroom, added a little cold water, then returned to the bedroom and handed Stallings one of the drinks. He sat down on the bed. She sat next to him and said, “It’s started.”
“The ground war.”
“You don’t sound very surprised.”
“Well, they’ve been building up to what — six months — and they’ve bombed the shit out of Iraq and’ve got all the troops and tanks and planes and artillery and ships they can use. It’ll probably end pretty soon — like I said.”
“You don’t sound very interested.”
“If there was any danger of losing, I might get interested. To me it’s just another dumb war with a foreordained outcome being fought by some young mercenaries or professionals we call volunteers. This country’ll never lose another conventional war. If it looks like we might lose, we won’t fight.”
“Especially if they’re white folks,” Georgia Blue said.
Stallings grinned. “Haven’t fought any of them since forty-five.”
I’d quote more from Voodoo, LTD. but a lot of the best stuff in the book contains too much plot. My paperback quotes all sorts of praise from a multitude of critics: I’m glad it was recognized at the time of publication as something special.
Ah, Treachery! (1994) The last book is not particularly epic or distinctive in the canon. It’s just business as usual, another great Ross Thomas thriller. Many of his works begin in a fairly abstract place, none more so than Ah, Treachery! The reader just needs to hang on and keep reading for a chapter or two, it will all make sense soon enough.
The old junkie gets to write one more cynical summary. The following valedictory could be titled, “You Know How Politics Works?” Millicent Alford is a Draper Haere-type; Ed Partain is her temporary bodyguard.
Just past Oxnard, State Highway 1 merges with U.S. 101 for a stretch and it was then that Partain said, “Tell me about the missing one-point-two million and why you won’t go to the cops and report it stolen or embezzled.”
Alford slipped the car over in the far left lane and nudged it up to 73 miles per hour before she said, “You know how politics works?”
“I know how it works in the Army. You do favors for guys who, expecting more favors, do favors. Some call it politics. Others call it brownnosing. But it’s how works in the Army.”
“And everywhere else,” she said. “Except that in elective politics you make promises to get elected. And once you’re elected, you promise even more things to get reelected. But promising isn’t cheap — especially when you have to go on TV to outpromise your opponent. The entire political process requires God knows how much money and, like I told you, that’s where I come in.”
She looked at him, as though expecting some kind of rebuttal. Instead, Partain gave her what he hoped were a couple of wise nods.
“I suppose I best tell you about the damp money,” she said with a small sigh.
“Is that money that went through the laundry but somebody forgot to fluff-dry it?”
“They didn’t forget. They just thought I might sunshine it dry. Once damp money’s dried out, it’s just plain old money. The missing one-point-two million was sun-dried. By me.”
“But still just a little bit damp?”
“Not enough to notice. Anyway, it made up a discretionary fund to be used only in emergencies.”
She thought about it, then said, “I’ll give you a sanitized for instance.”
“A sixteen-year old U.S. Senate page is about to go public with an accusation that a forty-seven-year-old U.S. Senator is the father of her unborn child. The Senator is privately questioned and admits he might’ve had sex with the kid once or twice, maybe even three times, or maybe, after thinking about it, half a dozen times.”
“Who asks him?”
“An intermediary or go-between of impeccable discretion, who’s also a long way from being broke.”
“Does the go-between do much of this kind of thing?”
“Enough,” she said. “Anyway, it’s two weeks or ten days before the November election when the go-between pays a call on the girl to find out how much she thinks her silence is worth.”
“How pregnant is she?”
“What about her parents?”
“They’re back in Idaho, she’s in Washington and, anyway, she thinks if they knew, they’d want a cut of whatever she gets.”
“How much does she ask for?”
“She tells the go-between her silence is worth at least one hundred thousand. They bargain and the go-between knocks her price down to seventy-five. That’s when he comes to me with his problem, which is money.”
“And you decide if reelecting a U.S. Senator who fucks sixteen-year old girls is worth seventy-five thousand?”
“Why not get the money from the senator?”
“One, he’ll claim he hasn’t got it and, two, if he did have it he’d be too tight with it. He’ll take his chances instead and his defense will be that the girl’s lying. If that doesn’t work, he’ll say he’s not they only senator she fucked.”
“Sounds like a prince.”
“Just average. So I ask the go-between to make sure the girl’s really pregnant and that the Senator’s really the father. He does and they are. I ask him if there’s a chance the girl will take the money and then talk her head off. He doesn’t think so and is almost sure she’ll have an abortion, then simply blow what’s left of the money. Because I trust his judgment, I hand over the seventy-five thousand.”
“What’s his cut — the go-between’s?”
“Must be a lot of altruism going around these days.”
“I haven’t noticed,” she said. “Anyway, the girl vanishes after the payoff and the Senator never even asks what happened to her.”
“And that’s when you tell him what he owes you?”
She turned to glance at him with obvious wonder, then quickly went back to her driving. “If we told him we’d spent seventy-five thousand on her, he’d’ve laughed and said we were a couple of marks who got taken by a teenage con artist.”
Partian thought that over, examining its weird logic, then asked, “Who gives you the okay to fork over that much money?”
“Because nobody wants to get their hands dirty.”
“Ever get ripped off?”
“Where’s the money come from?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Later on, in another car, a bit of dialogue explains the title.
After another lengthy silence, Winfield asked, “Does it seem either likely or possible that they could all be connected somehow — the murder of Trigueros in Washington, Laney’s murder here and the attempt on Millie Atford’s life?”
“Something that wires them together?”
“I’d settle for a common thread.”
A mile later Partain said, “Well, there’s me. I’m a common thread. But that’s only if you’re looking for a person. Some inanimate common threads might be money, greed, politics, revenge or treachery.”
“Ah, treachery!” the General murmured, his voice soft yet curiously orotund. “One of history’s favorite shortcuts.”
“Right up there with assassination.”
Raymond Chandler said, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” Thomas uses treachery similarly, as a “when in doubt” go-to plot move, especially when rounding the finish line. The resulting repetitiousness can sometimes undercut the dramatic power of his stories. Still, that said, the occasional lack of a satisfying dénouement doesn’t much matter. Thomas’s voice, his subtle perceptions, his sense of history, and his passionate but cynical love of politics are unequaled by any other writer in the genre.
Ah, Treachery! refers to the incoming Clinton administration with characteristic dry acceptance. Just after it was published, Thomas died of lung cancer. He was not yet seventy years old, and he was probably well aware that a new era had begun. He’d spent his writing life documenting a convoluted and compelling underworld, of dirty deals made by eccentrics and drunks. Now that old world was gone.
Many modern bestsellers might as well be called Ah, Obvious! More of today’s authors should take a page from Thomas and treat their readers like smart adults willing to learn from authentic experience.
More Ross Thomas on the internet:
Nick Jones has extensive cover scans (scroll down, there’s a lot there)
Tony Hiss remembers with style