Friday 4 February 2011

Ross Thomas: Yellow-Dog Contract

"Shit, I never thought about killing myself," Murfin said and I believed him. He doubtless lumped suicide with devil worship, witchcraft, animal sodomy, group therapy and other wicked pursuits that he felt to be crimes against both man and nature.

Ross Thomas moves into the murky world of corrupt union officials and political fixers in Yellow-Dog Contract, set in the USA shortly before the 1976 Presidential election. A union leader is missing, presumed dead. A millionaire with a taste for conspiracy theories hires Harvey Longmire to investigate. Longmire was once a Young Turk in both union and political worlds, now he raises goats and writes verses for greetings cards.

We soon find out that the circumstances of the disappearance are just part of a wide conspiracy; someone is taking over public worker union branches in major cities with a view to manipulating political outcomes. There's a lot at stake so the culprits are quite ready to kill to preserve their secret and the body count starts rising. Longmire finds one old acquaintance with his throat recently cut and witnesses a besotted woman shot to death after torture. He'd thought that he had retired to a simpler life, now he's enmeshed in the bad old days.

This novel is at odds with most of Thomas's work - it's rougher and cruder in tone and style, and reads more like a work from the Fifties than the Seventies. Nontheless it moves at a good pace and paints finely drawn pictures of the characters: from Longmire's dope-smoking, loose-living sister to the union officials with class prejudices and ill-fitting expensive suits. These last are themselves corrupt but only venally so - they've betrayed their principles for large offices and big pensions.

Along the way we meet another of the Longmire family, an uncle who is surely based on Lord Peter Wimsey's Uncle Paul Delagardie - an ex-CIA man who makes his own paté.

Ross Thomas fans will enjoy this. Newcomers to his work should also like it but need to know it's not his best - not only rougher but in some ways slighter and without the usual humour.

What is a yellow dog contract? An employment contract that says the worker will not join or will leave his union. Illegal now in most civilised countries (Tesco, please note as you expand in the USA).


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