Thursday 2 December 2010

Ross Thomas

If you like elegantly written, cleverly plotted, crime/spy novels, Ross Thomas is the author for you. Understated, crudity-free, you can read his books as either straight adventure or as gently biting comment on the frailties and dishonesty of individuals and society.

Thomas shows affection for many of his characters, possibly because they're based on the people he knew in his non-writing career, and several appear and reappear:

Artie Wu, the vast, elegant Chinaman in distant line for the Chinese throne. From early, crooked youth to marriage and fatherhood (via the aristocratic Aggie), Wu is the immovable rock behind the irresistible con.

Quincy Durant: Wu's partner in crime, the scarred hard man with the sensitive soul. If you think that's a cliché, don't worry, Thomas handles it perfectly and without sentiment.

Quincy and Wu appear in: Out On The Rim

Michael Padillo: part-owner of Mac's bar, develops from grubby US spy to reluctant hero.

McCorkle: first name Cyril, hence everybody calls him Mac. Padillo's partner in business and in whatever comes along to bother them and theirs.

Mac and Padillo appear in: The Cold War Swap and Twilight At Mac's Place

Throw in an a huge supporting cast from Otherguy Overby, con man, to Georgia Blue, ex secret service and now freelance crook (loveable and deadly, injustice and time in a Phillipines jail will do that). Throw in plots and sub-plots where nobody can be trusted unless you have to, and even then you keep one hand on your gun and one eye on the money. All of these and you know that whichever book you read you won't be disappointed: Ross Thomas has never written a bad book and I doubt he's ever written a bad sentence. If I had to choose one word to describe his work I'd say "polished".

Don't read him if you want buckets of blood and a headcount like a Rambo film: do read him if you like style that doesn't insult your intelligence.

Characters appear again and again, so what order should you read them in? It doesn't matter: where a bit of history is needed Thomas provides it in a few sharp sentences. His work actually went out of fashion (Clancy-like blockbusters and fancy weaponry became fashionable and de rigeur). Indeed, for seven years after his death he was out of print and I had to hunt down his books, hence some very ropey and tatty secondhand copies on the shelves. That meant I read them in the order I found them and don't feel I missed anything by so doing. Now, fortunately, many of his novels have been reprinted by the likes of the excellent St Martin's Minotaur and other sensible publishing houses.

What of Thomas's history? There are many who think that he was a spy himself -- early years spent in various countries working for various NGOs would have been a perfect cover. He certainly captures the venality and cruelty of the government agent and he shows a healthy (but well-mannered) contempt for the soulless political apes and fixers. Whatever the truth (and he's probably up there smiling gently at the debate), his writing rings true.


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