Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Remembering Ross 

I've become rather addicted to the transcripts of Washington Post Book Editor Michael Dirda's weekly chats. This time, he focuses on "major minor writers" in all genres, and closes the chat with a brief remembrance of what may well be my favorite mystery writer, Ross Thomas:

Lexington, Ky. : Michael, Many "major minor" writers have been discussed on your book chat. Many so-called genre writers are relegated even beneath that level and yet for years write excellent books that are soon lost to posterity. I'll nominate Ross Thomas from that pile because his books went out of print after his death and are now coming back into print in quality trade paper editions. Why should anyone read Thomas today? Because he was a decent stylist who wrote political thrillers about skullduggery in high places and that makes his books pertinent today!

Michael Dirda: Ross Thomas is a wonderful writer. Try Chinaman's Chance or The Seersucker Whipsaw or The Cold War Swap. I used to call Ross up to review thrillers and he was always at his desk in Malibu. I miss him.

So do I, and I know I'm not the only one who thinks this, not by a long shot. I was introduced to Thomas's works a few months before St. Martin's Press began reissuing them in trade paperback--a program I hope will continue until all twenty-five of his novels are back in print. Although Dirda's made some fine choices of which of Thomas's books to pick up, I started with 1987's OUT ON THE RIM--and was totally enthralled by Thomas's terse storytelling style that moved briskly yet was filled with wry humor. After that, I was hooked. My own favorites so far besides RIM--since I still have several books to read because I'm trying to pace myself--are THE FOURTH DURANGO (1988) which may be the nastiest book about small-town politics ever written, and MISSIONARY STEW (1983) for its knowledgeable take on the backstabbing and vagaries of prepping a candidate to run for presidency. But really, you pretty much can't go wrong with any of Thomas's books written under his own name (the five he wrote using the pen name Oliver Bleeck are regarded as somewhat inferior, though I haven't read any to comment one way or another.)

I've never had more pleasure in catching up with a writer's backlist as I have with Thomas, but it saddens me, of course, that the list is finite, as Thomas died back in 1995. And yet, even though his political thrillers are very much a product of their time, they seem eerily prescient even now, making me wonder what, exactly, Thomas would have made of the current political climate. Every time something major happens, like the situation in Haiti, the War on Iraq, the suicide bombings and the Presidential Election, a familiar mantra resonates in my brain: What Would Ross Thomas Do? But alas, we'll never know now.

For more Thomas-related info, see David Montgomery's tribute, Tony Hiss's memorial written for the Atlantic Monthly, and Roger L. Simon's speculation in the L.A. Weekly that Thomas might well have been a spy. Suffice it to say that Thomas's life and work would make for an excellent biography, should someone be inclined towards that sort of thing.

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