(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

If Ross Thomas needed any apprenticeship in writing fiction, he served it during his year as reporter, public relations man, and political manager. His first novel, The Cold War Swap, was published three years after John le Carré’s pathbreaking The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) captured the attention of readers by inverting the morality of the espionage novel. In his first offering, Thomas showed that he was already a master of the Hobbesian world of espionage double-cross, where every man is against every other, the only rule is survival, and the agents from both sides are more sympathetic characters than their masters. His hero, Mike Padillo, is a fully “amortized agent”—the agency’s investment in him has long since paid off handsomely. He is to be traded to the Soviets for a pair of gay National Security Agency defectors. His triumph, if it can be called that, is in carrying out his mission without falling into the hands of either side.

Thomas’s universe is not the weary world of fallen empire inhabited by Le Carré’s neurasthenic heroes but the permanently rotten one invented by the creators of the hard-boiled American detective. In it, few men (and fewer women) are loyal, everything is for sale, and everything is connected—in the worst possible way. His men are professionals whose only pride is in their professionalism and their survival. They survive because a few people have followed E. M. Forster’s advice to remain loyal to their friends rather than to their nation, or because they can buy aid from those who have no loyalties. Heroes cannot reform Thomas’s world, but the quick or the unprincipled can manipulate it, briefly, in pursuit of the ancient triad of money, power, and sex.

Cast a Yellow Shadow and The Singapore Wink

Thomas’s area of specialization was the world of the double-cross—espionage, politics, and the con game. His viewpoint characters are men of a certain age and experience who can handle themselves in the boardroom, battle, or boudoir. Journalists, former spies, and political insiders, his heroes come in two kinds, those who, like the cowboy, do not go looking for trouble, and those who, like the private eye, do—for money. Those who do not go willingly into trouble have to be blackmailed into doing the job, and their only recompense is money, lots of it, and peace and quiet until the next time. In Cast a Yellow Shadow (1967), Mike Padillo agrees to assassinate the prime minister of a white-ruled African nation after Mac’s wife is kidnapped. In The Singapore Wink (1969), Edward Cauthorne, former Hollywood stuntman and current dealer in vintage cars, agrees to go to Singapore to locate a man for the mob after several of his cars are vandalized. Hoods have also crushed the hands of Sidney Durant, his twenty-year-old body man, by repeatedly slamming a car door on them.

Those who do go willingly into trouble include con men Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, go-between Philip St. Ives, and a miscellaneous crew of journalists and political consultants whose job descriptions cannot be easily distinguished from those of the con men. The professionals cannot be distinguished in their expertise from the amateurs either, and the survival of all depends on quick reflexes fueled by low cunning, inside knowledge, and lashings of untraceable money.

Thomas invents female characters who are as capable of violence, lust, greed, and chicanery as the men; they may be physically weaker, but they make up for it. Although they are usually subsidiary characters in the typical women’s roles of secretary or assistant, there are exceptions. Georgia Blue (Out on the Rim, 1987) is a former Secret Service agent who has a role equal to the men’s in persuading the Filipino revolutionary to retire to Hong Kong, and Wanda Gothar (The Backup Men, 1971) is an experienced member of a family that has been involved in espionage since the Napoleonic era. If the women are older, they are capable of the exercise of power, such as Gladys Citron (Missionary Stew, 1983), West Coast editor of a National Enquirer-type newspaper and former Office of Strategic Services officer decorated personally by Charles de Gaulle for killing three dozen Germans. Realistically, most of the older women exercise power as wives or widows, and they do it by manipulation, at which they are as adept as the men around them. All Thomas’s characters like sex the way they like food or drink.

The Seersucker Whipsaw

Perhaps because southerners have traditionally had verbal skills that take them into politics, or because Thomas is from the edge of the South, many of...

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