Ross Thomas in death continues to serve a dessert too rich for the ego, but so good you can't get enough of it. His writing enters the blood with an uncanny ease, and changes you. What he did when alive was as close to real magic as a mortal being can conjure. And his power lives on.
As for the ego thing, most of us who read think we can write. I mean, it can't be that hard, right? You can read, so you must be able to write. That's what Thomas thought when, at age 40, he wrote his first novel, The Cold War Swap. It took him less than two months. The first publisher he sent it to, William Morrow, bought it. Published in 1966, it won the Edgar Award for best first novel.
YeahYeahYeah, you might feel like saying, like I did before I read further. He had an ace up his sleeve, I figured. The publisher was an old poker buddy, they sang in the same choir. Had to be something, right? Master of fine arts degree? Well...nuh uh. He did have a varied background, the kind some writers have turned to profit: World War II infantryman, public relations specialist, correspondent with the Armed Forces Network, union spokesman, and political strategist—the latter in the U.S., Germany, and Nigeria. Probably picked up a few tricks writing jingles, memos and strategy papers. But...but is that enough by itself to produce an award-winning novel first time out? C'mon, I'm dying here!
This is how Thomas told the story, as quoted by novelist Lawrence Block in his book The Crime of Our Lives:
“I decided I’d like to write a book. I set up my typewriter and started hitting the keys, and when I was done I had a couple hundred double-spaced pages and didn’t know what to do with them, so I called a writer friend of mine in New York and told him what I’d done. ‘Now why would you do something like that?’ he wondered. ‘Well, go out and buy some brown wrapping paper, and wrap your manuscript in that. And then address the parcel to this fellow at William Morrow, in New York, and mail it to him. And enclose return postage, so he can send it back to you.’
“So I did that, making a reasonably neat parcel of it, and I sent it off, and a couple of weeks went by. Then I got a phone call from the chap I’d sent the manuscript to, and he said they wanted to publish my book.”
I had read two or three Ross Thomas novels back when he was writing them. This was in the pre-internet days, or I probably would have read them all as soon as they came off the press. (My reading has always been somewhat disorganized, so that last statement might be a tad overenthusiastic. But I remember feeling as if I'd tumbled onto one fine storyteller.) The one I remember most vividly is The Fools in Town are on Our Side, based on a plot idea that served Hammett well in Red Harvest, and worked in films storied by Akira Kurosawa: Yojimbo, and later, with Ryuzo Kikushima, Last Man Standing.
What stands out for me in Thomas's voice is the ever-present sense of droll humor no matter how dire the situation. His characters are richly presented, multi-faceted people. I feel I know them all, care what happens to them, even those I'm pretty damned sure are not to be trusted. I read Cold War Swap last week, deciding initially to run through the Thomas canon in sequence, but I've already fallen off that wagon. Not sure why, either. Maybe it was the two main characters in Cold War Swap—Mike Padillo and Cyril “Mac” McCorkle, who own a bar in Bonn, West Germany. They're unpredictable fellows to the extent they adapt quickly to circumstances that come to them.
While it is obvious Thomas lays out intricate plots, they don't seem to proceed according to the original design. Thomas revealed to fellow mystery writer Stuart M. Kaminsky the reason for this, and Kaminsky includes it in his introduction to the Thomas Dunne Books edition of Cold War Swap:
“He once told me that he had no idea what his characters were going to do when he sat down each day to write, no idea of how fate might step in. He said, 'I often wonder what’s going to happen next and that’s what makes it interesting for me and, if I’m lucky, for the reader.'”
“He was more than lucky,” Kaminsky added, and I must agree.
I believe it's Thomas's characters that keep his books feeling fresh despite being dated. In a sense they are fictionalized histories. But the international and bureaucratic politics that drive the circumstances that enmesh the characters have little if any resonance beyond those circumstances. The primary attitude of the characters in Cold War Swap and in his 1990 novel, Twilight at Mac's Place, which I have just started reading, is what I would call (under the spell of Ross-speak) a pragmatic cynicism mitigated by a dash of chary insouciance.
They do what they have to to get by, no matter how daring or dirty, but would just as soon simply live as well as they can.
I come away from a stretch of reading Thomas with a similar attitude that's somehow taken up residence in me. Then I remember how much I should resent how he did it, but I can't stop reading.
[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]