Remembering Ross Thomas

He made crime fiction a genre of moral consolation in twenty-five award-winning books

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.

Chandler turned to fiction because he was broke; it was the early 1930s, and he'd lost his job with the oil company. When he began writing, he put himself through a laborious five-year apprenticeship, turning out dozens of short pieces for dime detective magazines before he got the flippancy and the Anglicisms out of his tone and was ready to write five beautiful crime novels that today are studied in college literature courses.

Many people now revere Chandler as a writer who spoke for the soul of Los Angeles, finding in his work almost the same intensity of feeling for a place achieved by the great naturalists in theirs—John Muir writing about the Sierra Nevada, for instance, or Thoreau about the Maine woods. But when I come back to Chandler, it's to listen to a lyrical, tender, passionate voice calling out from his time and his America to ours, reminding us that not so very long ago, during the late-New Deal, early-Second World War years, this was a country that looked its problems in the eye and thought it knew enough about human nature not to get suckered by grifters, schemers, con men, and backstabbers. Maybe those were the last years of a kind of battered innocence, the final moment when it seemed as if fellow feeling and good will, teamwork and sweetness of character, were strong enough to stand up to anything, and were all we needed to get the whole country back in balance.

Ross Thomas, in his crime novels, wrote about the successors to that moment, the post-Chandler Americans—as he saw us, we have for fifty years been thrown hopelessly off balance by what the end of the Second World War brought our way: sudden power, instant dread that this power might be grabbed away at any moment, and widespread prosperity that lingered so long it started to feel permanent. Like one of his most memorable characters, Homer Necessary, whose ambivalent attitude toward life is epitomized by his having one blue eye and one brown eye (he's an utterly corrupt, but in his personal life completely trustworthy, ex-police chief who speeds the action along in an early Thomas classic, The Fools in Town Are on Our Side), Thomas has two overlapping views about the Cold War years and their aftermath. With so much for us to be greedy for or frightened about, as he repeatedly showed, the last half century has had a devastatingly corrosive effect on American public life. At the same time, with all the outsized rogues and cunning intriguers this period has so lavishly given rise to, it's been a storyteller's paradise.

This fusion of dismay and delight, I think, gives Thomas's books a tang that's often missing in other Cold War tales, even those by writers as gifted and as compelling as Ian Fleming and John le Carré. Fleming's James Bond books, idealized retellings of the doings of his former colleagues in British intelligence, are high-spirited, enticing, and inventive, but at the same time almost relentlessly congratulatory, with none of the sly self-mockery that the actor Sean Connery later contributed. In retrospect they seem a bit forlorn, like the brass bands that played during the early months of the First World War. Le Carré, who eclipsed Fleming in popularity during the second and more somber half of the Cold War, is a writer of real stature whose English secret-service heroes wrestle with real and lasting demons like self-doubt and loneliness, as well as with adversaries who themselves have been crippled by the pointlessness of it all.

The one true meeting point I can see between Fleming and le Carré is that both seem quietly to share the idea that the postwar period could have been much improved by putting the Brits back in charge of Western strategy. Thomas, by contriving to look steadily at the pain of our times and at the people who take pleasure from it, and having little hope for wisdom in any national capital, somehow managed to make the Cold War years seem more ordinary, and therefore more endurable. So the setting for his stories is neither the innocent playground of the old Great Game, where superpowers competed for glory, nor the final tragedy of history. Instead the Cold War is just one more set of obstacles to get through, and maybe learn from.

Looking back, it's easy to see why Thomas never had to serve an apprenticeship as a fiction writer—he was already exceptionally good at writing even before he knew it was what he would do with the rest of his life. The first story he ever wrote, The Cold War Swap, a fast-paced, wisecracking novel about a thoroughly rotten plan cooked up by a little-known American intelligence agency that has turned crooked without even noticing it, was tossed off during six weeks when he had nothing better to do. It's still dazzling, and after it came out, in 1966, the year Thomas turned forty, it won an Edgar, the mystery writers' equivalent of the Oscar. In the twenty-nine years that followed, Thomas came up with twenty-four more novels at least as good. All the books he ever wrote (except Warriors for the Poor, long since remaindered) are in print today, a rare accomplishment and probably the one prize almost every professional author, deep down, would most like to achieve.

Thomas has become such a long-lasting success in part, I think, because of the unusually generous nature of his creative talent. Any Thomas novel is a feast, with plot and characters enough to fill four ordinary thrillers—in fact, one of them,The Fools in Town, actually reels off four wildly inventive and tightly interlocked stories all at once, and zips effortlessly back and forth among the Deep South in the late 1960s, Hong Kong in the early 1960s, Texas in the early 1950s, and Shanghai in the late 1930s. Thomas often told interviewers that he didn't know how his books would turn out when he started them, which probably explains why even in rereading them one has a sense that anything could happen.

Among his peers Thomas, who in recent years served a term as president of the Mystery Writers of America, was famous for fast-draw opening paragraphs that get right down to business. Briarpatch, for instance, the 1985 Edgar winner, begins,

The redheaded homicide detective stepped through the door at 7:30 A.M. and out into the August heat that already had reached 88 degrees. By noon the temperature would hit 100, and by two or three o'clock it would be hovering around 105. Frayed nerves would then start to snap and produce a marked increase in the detective's business. Breadknife weather, the detective thought. Breadknives in the afternoon.

Ross Thomas would probably never have described himself as Raymond Chandler's successor; Hemingway was the writer he admired most, and his own style, which may well get its terseness, artful scene setting, and uncanny skill with dialogue from Hemingway, is far more freewheeling than Chandler's. It is characterized chiefly by a kind of laconic gusto, or tight-lipped amplitude, and if that sounds hard to conjure up, try to imagine the kind of writing that might result if a Hollywood studio were able to lock Mark Twain and Dashiell Hammett in a room together and ask for a screenplay in a week's time. But Chandler and Thomas, it seems to me, however beguiling their tales, have a more basic link, because at bottom both are writers of a special kind of self-help or fix-it book (a crossover market I'm pretty sure book publishers haven't yet tapped into).

There are actually two kinds of escape reading, and only one has to do with snuggling into a book just to take a break from your problems for a few hours. Put down a Thomas book, like a Chandler book, even on a dark night of the soul, and you're never quite back where you were before you began reading. Something, I've always found, has been subtly strengthened and enriched in the meantime. It might be a sense that you can now look awful situations in the eye without dissolving. Or merely a replenished sense that good cheer can still bubble up into the world, and that there's enough on hand for all of us to make it through another season. It's certainly the kind of feeling that again and again makes one glad that Ross Thomas found he had to take up writing.