Ross Thomas, the criminally neglected spy-caper author behind “Briarpatch”
The best books aren’t always prominently displayed on the bestseller shelves of our libraries and bookstores or featured in university literature courses. More often than not, they are hidden away in our basements in large battered cardboard boxes that almost everybody has forgotten were even down there.
That’s where Andy Greenwald, the writer-producer of USA’s excellent limited series, “Briarpatch,” whose finale airs Monday, discovered Ross Thomas while visiting his parents in Philadelphia. “I’d never heard of him before,” Greenwald told me. “And then I found ‘Chinaman’s Chance’ in this dogeared stack of mass-market paperbacks in the basement, took it upstairs and read it in a couple of sittings. Pretty soon, Thomas was my favorite living novelist.”
“Chinaman’s Chance,” published in 1978 (hence the poorly aged title), is the perfect gateway Thomas novel — an almost Altman-esque, multi-perspective tale of a con game run by a pair of hyper-bright orphan outcasts, Artie Wu and Quincy Durant. It pops with narrative invention, quirky and roguish antiheroes, and dialogue that fizzes like flailing power lines on a windy night.
Artie is a tall, multitalented and charming “pretender to the Emperor’s throne” of China who may appear slightly overweight at first, but when push comes to shove he is mostly solid muscle and iron resolve — especially when it comes to cheating cheaters of their money. Raised in a San Francisco orphanage, educated at Princeton, he has fathered two sets of twins with his Scottish aristo wife, who is herself “eighteenth cousin to the Queen twice removed or something.” According to their colleague-in-crime, Otherguy Overby (often picked up for crimes he blames on some “other guy”), Artie “figures if there were about two revolutions, three wars and maybe ten thousand deaths of just the right people, his oldest twin boy could be both King of Scotland and Emperor of China.”
What a panoply of names and nicknames come roaring through the pages of Thomas’ 25 novels. Georgia Blue, in “Out on the Rim,” never worries about the guns in men’s pockets since she carries a few of her own. Lucifer Dye, in the perfectly titled “The Fools in Town Are On Our Side,” acts as double and triple agent so glibly that he doesn’t always remember which team he’s playing for. Then there’s “The Money Harvest’s” Washington fixer Crawdad Gilmore, and “The Mordida Man’s” Special Forces-captain-turned-corrupt congressman-turned-cab driver Chubb Dunjee. Even the minor characters, from “Fools’” Homer Necessary to the boozy hack journalist Freddie Laffter in “Briarpatch,” light up every scene they’re in. Thomas never needed to rely on series characters; new ones were continually popping forth from his imagination like criminal conspiracies at a White House political function.
According to his friend and fellow crime novelist Lawrence Block, Thomas picked “colorful names so that he would remember them while he was writing.” But his characters are more than snappy monikers. They’re screwed up, talented, conflicted and deeply self-interested con men and con women who don’t entirely believe their own crooked stories, never mind anybody else’s. They are vividly dressed for the reader’s pleasure. (“Victor Orcutt wasn’t much over five foot three and I can’t say that I ever saw him walk any place. He glided instead.”) And their individual histories pack more narrative muscle than the entire oeuvre of most successful commercial novelists; they always possess excellent résumés, not that you’d ever believe them.
Most of us die-hard Ross Thomas fans never tire of debating why he was underappreciated when he was alive and too quickly forgotten after dying of lung cancer, in 1995, at 69. Sure, he was reasonably successful — receiving Edgar Awards at the start of his career, for his first novel, “The Cold War Swap” (1966), and almost 20 years later for “Briarpatch” (1984). In a sad irony, he was awarded the Gumshoe lifetime achievement award posthumously. But today most of his novels remain out of print or available only in e-format. And while most of them read like manic movies projected onto the pages as readers flip happily through them, none had been filmed before “Briarpatch.” Even when Thomas wrote original scripts — like his hilarious repair job on the train wreck known as “Hammett” (in which he makes a brief appearance) or his perfect original spy thriller, “Bad Company” starring Laurence Fishburne and Ellen Barkin — his contributions never received the attention they deserved.
Partly this may be the result of Thomas’ cynicism about American politics — especially his vision of the Washington “intelligence” community as a motley crew of sellout turncoats-for-hire. Thomas’ characters were a far cry from the typical Schwarzenegger or John Wayne-style American hero. They don’t usually shoot it out or blow stuff up to save the world; they just play the game of politics and crime more smartly than the bad guys and, when they’re really good, take home all the money.
At their best, they are crooks who aren’t quite as crooked as the other crooks. They don’t possess “morals” so much as a sense of loyalty toward their friends, their family or, at the very least, their fellow crooks. Like the childhood friends of “Briarpatch,” Dill and Spivey, they might work opposite sides of the law, but they stick by their original faith in one another. They sound more like the complicated heroes or antiheroes who proliferate in the age of HBO — by which time Thomas, who might possibly have been born too soon, was already a footnote.
In “Mad Men,” “The Conners,” “Twin Peaks” and now “Briarpatch,” Jay R. Ferguson — and his beard — have been familiar sights on TV.
It didn’t help that Thomas lacked any interest in celebrity. He was neither a glad-hander nor a social networker. His longtime friend and agent, Roberta Kent, remembers him as “the most antisocial man I ever met.” Most friends recall his quiet charm and dry sense of humor, but only in small groups or dinner parties. And the facts of his life are as mysterious as those of his characters. He has the briefest Wikipedia entry of any major American writer that I’ve ever read, and there doesn’t seem to be a library repository for his manuscripts and papers — many of which were lost when his Malibu home burned down in the 1993 fire.
Thomas was born in Oklahoma, a place “he didn’t speak kindly about,” recalls his friend, departing Times film critic Kenneth Turan. He went on to work as a political “gun for hire” in places as diverse as North Dakota and Africa; as a labor organizer for the AFL-CIO; and as a “leg man” for the muckraking journalist Drew Pearson. And although it is rumored that he may have worked for the very intelligence agencies he lampooned, Thomas never admitted it.
“He hated to do signings and stuff like that,” his longtime friend and editor, Otto Penzler, told me. “But one on one and in small groups, he was always charming.”
That sentiment was echoed by every one of Thomas’ friends who spoke to me. Ross Thomas loved to write. He just didn’t seem to care much about “being a writer.”
“I remember once reading a great review of one of Ross’ books,” Turan says, “and calling him to say, ‘Look, maybe this will be the breakthrough novel we’ve been waiting for.’ And Ross laughed and said, ‘Kenneth, one swallow does not a spring make.’ Ross always had a way with words.”
After nearly 30 years as the LA Times’ chief film critic, Kenneth Turan steps back from weekly duties with a list of 14 time-tested classics to get movie fans through the hardest of times.
But thanks to Andy Greenwald — and the fact that many Americans may now distrust the briar patch of contemporary politics as much as Thomas’ savviest antiheroes — the unfair neglect may be coming to an end. Most of Thomas’ books have now either been optioned for film or are close to it (including the marvelous “Chinaman’s Chance”). And so it may be time for all of us to journey into our basements, break open the old cardboard boxes, and re-enjoy all those great novels we enjoyed once before. This may finally be the season when all the swallows come home, singing the praises of the great Ross Thomas. Even in dark days like these, we can always hope for spring.
Bradfield is the author of “The History of Luminous Motion” and “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog.”
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