Ross Thomas: Our Guest of Honor
Excerpts from the article by Stephen Miller in the October/November 2003 issue of Mystery News
Shortly before his death in 1995, Bouchercon 28 named Ross Thomas its guest of honor for the conference to be held two years hence in Monterey. Though he was present only in spirit, he managed to envelop the conference, like the northern California fog. One panel, entitled "The Ross Thomas Memorial Poker Game" gathered Jeremiah Healy, Robert J. Randisi, Jan Grape and others to reminisce about Thomas in the midst of a game of cards. It would have been a crowning achievement for a writer who never got his fair share of credit for having written some of the best works of crime ficiton ever published in this country. Happily for us, St. Martin's Press has reprinted four of the twenty-five novels written under his own name (he also published a handful of stories as Oliver Bleek) with plans to bring out two more in December. This kind of public service ought to be rewarded.
Writing in the November 1996 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Tony Hiss observed that "Ross Thomas wrote about the successors to -- 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." Seven years later, those words could scarcely feel more true.
Thomas burst onto the fiction scene in 1966 with The Cold War Swap, possible the best first novel of his generation. While some details date the book as quaint (my personal favorite takes place in the first chapter where two characters smoke onboard an airplane), it remains a taut tale of uncertainty and dread in divided Germany as the Cold War was reaching its peak...
In the Atlantic Monthly piece, Hiss draws many similarities between Thomas and Raymond Chandler . In The Cold War Swap, it's easy to draw that connection. Condider the opening of Chapter 2.
"You can probably find a couple thousand spots like Mac's Place in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. They are dark and quiet with the furniture growing just a little shabby, the carpet stained to an indeterminate shade by spilled drinks and cigarette ashes, and the bartender friendly and fast but tactful enough to let it ride if you walk in with someone else's wife." I defy anyone to read that paragraph without nodding a head in recognition...
Barry Gardner and Steve Stillwell wrote an appreciation of Ross Thomas in the Bouchercon 28 convention guide. Concluding the essay, Stillwell said "As a bookseller, people are always asking me about my favorite writers. My standard response for years was Rex Stout dead and Ross Thomas living. I can't use that anymore, damn it, and have yet to come up with a replacement. I doubt I ever will.
Read the complete article in the October/November 2003 issue of Mystery News