RARA-AVIS: Ross Thomas/Chinaman's Chance

From: Vince Keenan ( vpkeenan@hotmail.com)
Date: 24 Feb 2005

To mark Bleeck Midwinter month, I read the recent St. Martin's Press reissue of this 1978 Ross Thomas novel. It introduces his recurring con men characters Artie Wu and Quincy Durant. The typically corkscrew plot involves a missing folk singer, two million dollars stolen from the U.S. embassy during the fall of Saigon, a dead Congressman, and a Southern California town ripe for the picking.

It's a bracing piece of work. Not quite as good as Thomas' masterpiece THE FOOLS IN TOWN ARE ON OUR SIDE, in which Lucifer Dye's backstory has genuine weight, but it's close.

No one writes Establishment types better than Thomas, and the scenes where Mr. Simms negotiates with gym owner/money lender Solly Gesini have a real crackle to them. I never completely bought Lace Armitage as "one of the two bankable actresses in the world," but her late scene with Durant has a psychological acuity and an insider's feel for Hollywood.

As for the scheme involving Pelican Bay ... I still think that would work. Any of you rare birds want to throw in with me, I can get the ball rolling.

Someone -- I believe it was Edgar nominee Larry Beinhart in his book on writing mystery fiction -- said that every Elmore Leonard novel was essentially the same: a big tough guy irritates a little tough guy and ends up ruing the day. Thomas' novels are similar. They generally follow the same paradigm. There are two sets of criminals, and we root for one because, well, they're our guys. I don't intend this as a knock. Just as Leonard is able to wring infinite variations on the theme, so is Thomas.

An earlier comment described Thomas as a writer of first-rate light entertainments. I'd credit his books with more heft than that. Reading them, you get a sense of how the world actually works. They're often breathtakingly cynical. The forces of law and order are always pursuing their own agenda. And while the place names may change (the role Vietnam plays in this book is taken by El Salvador in Thomas' last outing AH, TREACHERY!), that agenda remains the same.

In their own way, his books are quite hard-boiled. Part of my problem with a lot of contemporary HB fiction is that the authors are so intent on proving their badass bona fides that the books become almost comic. Thomas' overtly light touch allows his work's darker nature to sneak up on you.

Great pick for the month, Bill. Thomas is a huge personal favorite, and I'll take any excuse to read him.


www.vincekeenan.com Pop culture, high and low, past and present. One day at a time.

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 24 Feb 2005 EST