Ross Thomas, who died last winter at the age of sixty-nine, has often been compared to another writer of hard-boiled fiction—Raymond Chandler. Both were spellbinding storytellers; no matter how fast one galloped through their books, one read the last chapter at a crawl, in order to delay its end ("Can't put it down" also means "Try to make it last"). And they had similar turning points, since each first started publishing fiction around the age of forty. Both Thomas and Chandler had more than just high hopes going for them when they began coming up with tales, because they brought with them half a lifetime's worth of triumphs, misfortunes, magical transformations, and mortifying mistakes or raw material, as Somerset Maugham used to call what leads to the slow accumulation of understanding.
Chandler, a generation older than Thomas, fought with the Canadian Corps and later served in the Royal Air Force during the First World War. He became a banker for a while and then a successful oil-company executive. Thomas began his adult life as a U.S. infantryman in the Philippines during the Second World War, and after that was very busy jumping into and out of several promising careers. He was a reporter (in Cajun country, in Bonn, and in Washington) and a public-relations man (first for the National Farmers Union and later for VISTA), and he made something of a name for himself as a political mastermind. He was the chief strategist for two aging union presidents seeking re-election, guided a tribal chief who was trying to become Nigeria's first postcolonial Prime Minister, and in 1956 handled two campaigns simultaneously—one for a Republican nominated for the Senate and the other for a Democrat running for governor of Colorado. (Both union presidents were eventually turned out of office; the Nigerian lost big and was thrown into jail; the Republican didn't make it; the Democrat won.) Thomas's PR work culminated in Warriors for the Poor: The Story of VISTA, his only nonfiction book, which he co-wrote.