Ross was always at the top of his game, and never wrote a bad sentence or a lifeless page, never created an unengaging character.
Ross Thomas didn’t do a lot of public speaking, and maybe it’s just as well. He was both good and bad at it—good in that he expressed himself well and spoke in paragraphs, not so good in that he didn’t project, and was often hard to hear beyond the first few rows. But the worst thing about a Ross Thomas talk or interview was the number of people who’d walk out of it afterward yearning to kill themselves.
Writers, all of them. And what sent them home itching to swallow the Veronal was Ross’ explanation of how he’d started out in the business. I heard him tell the story several times, and it generally came out something like this:
“I decided I’d like to write a book. I set up my typewriter and started hitting the keys, and when I was done I had a couple hundred double-spaced pages and didn’t know what to do with them, so I called a writer friend of mine in New York and told him what I’d done. ‘Now why would you do something like that?’ he wondered. ‘Well, go out and buy some brown wrapping paper, and wrap your manuscript in that. And then address the parcel to this fellow at William Morrow, in New York, and mail it to him. And enclose return postage, so he can send it back to you.’
“So I did that, making a reasonably neat parcel of it, and I sent it off, and a couple of weeks went by. Then I got a phone call from the chap I’d sent the manuscript to, and he said they wanted to publish my book.”
Ah, the sweet agony of the literary life. The struggle, the disappointment, the never-ending cycle of hope and heartbreak.
“So I sent it off, and this fellow called up and said they wanted to publish it.” Many would sigh when they heard those words, and the loudest sighs came from those who knew what Ross was too modest to add, and what the late Paul Harvey would have called The End of the Story: The book was The Cold War Swap, and William Morrow did indeed publish it, and it went on to win the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Mystery Novel of 1966.
Ross followed The Cold War Swap with Cast a Yellow Shadow, a second book about Padillo and McCorkle. It seems to me I read those two out of order, but after that I bought all his books as they came out. And one day in 1969 I came across a new book called The Brass Go-Between, by one Oliver Bleeck, identified by his publisher as the pseudonym of a well-known writer. The publisher was William Morrow, which would have constituted a clue, but it was a clue I doubt I’d have needed. I opened the book, read two or three pages, knew at once just what well-known writer had written these words, and bought the book and took it home.
I was a fan, and a year or two later I wrote a fan letter. I learned from someone at Morrow that Ross was living in London, got his address, and sent him the letter, along with a copy of my new book. I got a response that made it clear that he had been enjoying my work over the years, and that sort of mutual admiration is not the worst foundation for a friendship.
A couple more letters crossed the Atlantic, and my then-wife and I enlarged a planned trip to Ireland to include a couple of days in London. Ross had a flat in Kensington, if I remember correctly, and was sharing it with a woman and a couple of cats. I think the woman’s name was Judy. Or maybe that was one of the cats.
Well, it was close to 40 years ago, and I was drinking back then. But Ross, to my considerable surprise, was not. He poured drinks with a generous hand, made sure my glass was never empty (even as I made sure it didn’t remain full for long), and treated us to an elegant dinner at Prunier’s, where he consulted with the sommelier and chose the wine.
But he didn’t have any wine himself, or any whisky, or even a glass of light ale. Nothing stronger than a postprandial espresso.
Now I knew some people who didn’t drink. I found their behavior curious, but I figured they had their reasons. One fellow I knew got drunk once, didn’t like it, and decided never to do it again. I could understand that, even if I had a little trouble imagining what it was he didn’t like about it.
But the novels I’d read, whether by Ross Thomas or Oliver Bleeck, displayed throughout a deep familiarity and abiding affection for ethyl alcohol in all its forms. Ross’ characters drank, and drank a lot, and did so pretty much all the time.
I didn’t get it. The man was no Mormon; he drank a lot of coffee and smoked one Pall Mall after another, but he didn’t drink.
Did I ask him about it? It seems to me I probed just enough to learn that he didn’t drink these days. I wondered why, but felt it would be unseemly to ask.
The next time I saw Ross was a year or so later. I was on a weekend visit to Washington with my daughter Amy, staying at the Hay-Adams across the street from the White House. (I didn’t have any money, but hotels were cheap, and it seems to me our room at the Hay set me back all of $35 a night. Nowadays it would be 20 times that, and I couldn’t possibly afford it.) We spent an evening together, and I had a couple of drinks. He didn’t, but I no longer found it remarkable. I had grown used to the idea. Some people didn’t drink, and he was evidently one of them, although his characters were very convincing drinkers. Well, what of it? Edgar Rice Burroughs had never been to Africa—or, come to think of it, to Mars, either. You didn’t have to go there to write about it, did you?
In the late ’60s I bought a farmhouse on 20-plus acres near Lambertville, New Jersey, and Ross and Judy were going to visit, but I can’t remember whether they did or not. There are, alas, some burnt-out bulbs in the streetlights on Memory Lane. But in 1973 my marriage ended and I moved to West 58th Street, and by then Judy was no longer part of the equation. One day the following year I got a phone call from Ross, demanding to know what was the finest restaurant in New York.
I wasn’t the best person to ask, but I told him Lutèce was probably the best, or close to it.
“Make a reservation,” he announced, “for tomorrow at one. I’ll be taking you and your girl to lunch.”
The woman I was seeing had a job she couldn’t abandon, but I knew a recent divorcée, a big Ross Thomas fan, who would certainly be up for a meal. I made the reservation, and Ross said he’d pick me up at my apartment around noon.
He came by around 11:30. He rang my doorbell and I opened the door and there was Ross, with his eyes rolling around in his head. “We’ve got nothing to worry about,” he announced. “I just laid 20 bucks on your doorman.”
And just like that I understood why he didn’t drink.
The details of the afternoon are a little vague, and I can’t blame that on the years, because they were vague from the jump. Ross was accompanied by a young man he called the Sergeant-Major, for indiscernible reasons, who seemed to be a sort of driver and bodyguard. The Sergeant-Major went off to do something, and Ross had a seat, and I drank everything I could find in an effort to catch up, because I felt entirely too sober for the company. There was nothing on hand but a few cordials I kept for company, half-pint bottles of Kirschwasser and Goldwasser and triple sec, the sort of thing of which nobody would want more than a sip or two, but I braced myself and Made Do.
The Sergeant-Major turned up in time to drive us to Lutèce in a limo, picking up my friend Debby en route, then he left us to do something else. (He was armed, Ross told us, and got his gun through airport security—such as it was in those innocent days—by wearing it in an ankle holster.)
At Lutèce, they seated the three of us at a lovely table upstairs, and a waiter came to take our drink order. Ross said he wanted a triple vodka martini, straight up and extra dry. The waiter asked if he’d prefer an olive or an onion with that. “We’ll eat later,” Ross announced.
And after that, alas, it all gets rather vague. Ross was in the middle of a two- or threeweek toot, and I was no match for him. I blotted my copybook, falling asleep with my head in a plate of chicken Kiev, but not until I’d had one or two bites of it. It was a specialty at Lutèce, and rightly so.
Mencken wrote somewhere that the hand of the Lord had taken hold of the United States by the state of Maine, and lifted, so that everything loose wound up in Southern California. I was loose enough to qualify, and two years after that lunch I was living in Hollywood at the Magic Castle Hotel, and my three daughters came out to spend the summer with me. We spent July at the hotel and August driving back across the country to NewYork, and it was in July that we went out to Malibu for the day.
Ross was living there with Rosalie, who’d been with the Library of Congress in Washington, and who had since become Mrs. Thomas. They had rented a beachfront cottage in a community called Pirate Cove—it’s right there in the opening scene in Chinaman’s Chance, so there’s no need for me to describe it. I had driven out myself for a visit sometime in May or June, but I remember the July trip more vividly. My girls were 15, 13, and 6 at the time, and I guess they were at their most charming, because over the years Ross and Rosalie never ceased asking about them, and remembering what a grand day we’d all spent together.
In Malibu, Ross mentioned the lunch at Lutèce, and confided that his spree had been physically and financially ruinous. “But,” he said a little wistfully, “it was fun while it lasted.”
As far as I know he never drank again. I drove the girls back to New York in August, and wound up moving back to Manhattan, and in the spring of ’77 I stopped drinking. The only person I could think to tell was Ross, and I wrote him a letter and got an immediate reply. “I went for the cookies and the coffee,” he said of the group he’d joined, “but what I really like are the stories, where a guy tells how he was down and out in East St. Louis, and now he’s president of IBM with rising expectations.”
As a writer, Ross was elegantly perverse. He wrote wonderfully tough-minded and uncompromisingly realistic fiction and peopled it with characters with names every bit as unlikely as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Pussy Galore. I suppose it’s possible to have a police chief named Homer Necessary, but the fellow turns up in the same book as Lucifer Dye. (The book is The Fools in Town Are on Our Side, and it’s my favorite of them all; a spin on Hammett’s Red Harvest, it boasts a backstory that’s a fine novel all by itself.)
Ross insisted that he picked colorful names so that he’d remember them while he was writing. But I think he just liked them.
Early on, he reported, some old editor took him aside and gave him a piece of advice. “Two things you never want to write about,” said the fellow, who may well have had something to drink before imparting this bit of wisdom. “Dwarves and Chinamen. Nobody wants to read about dwarves or Chinamen.”
Ross thanked the fellow and assured him he’d never forget it. And the next novel he wrote was Chinaman’s Chance, and he followed it with The Eighth Dwarf.
In one of the Oliver Bleeck books, two wonderfully engaging friends of the protagonist turn up and join him in a rescue operation in Yugoslavia. The banter among the three is a delight, and the reader looks forward to more of it in later books—until, after the plot has been successfully resolved, a stray bullet zips in and kills one of the buddies.
“I could just picture these clowns joking around in book after book,” he told me, “and I decided the hell with all that, so I nipped it in the bud.”
Ross’ life before Cold War Swap informed his work; he’d been to Africa, and Singapore, and Germany, and knew most of the places he wrote about. Rumors abounded that he’d been with the CIA, and I gather his response if asked was an enigmatic smile, but I never asked and in fact rarely gave it much thought. I’m sure his work in Africa put him in contact with some of the Langley crowd, for whom he had a contempt that could only have been born of familiarity. But I’d be surprised if he had any real connection with the Company.
But of course one never knows.
I wish I’d seen more of him over the years, but we were on opposite coasts, so our contacts were infrequent. I ran into Ross now and then at Bouchercon, and when a book tour took him to New York or me to L.A.—or, on one occasion, put us both in D.C. at the same time. Ross was a founding member of the International Association of Crime Writers, and my wife Lynne and I spent time with him and Rosalie on IACW excursions to Spain and Cuba.
In 1985, 18 years after his first Edgar, Ross won again for best novel with Briarpatch. In his acceptance speech he said he was grateful MWA felt his work hadn’t deteriorated over the years.
And it never did. He was always at the top of his game, and never wrote a bad sentence or a lifeless page, never created an unengaging character. He died in December of 1995. Too soon, I’d say—but that’s how it is with the people one likes and admires.
The books live on. That’s what we always say, isn’t it? But in Ross’ case it’s true. They’re endlessly rereadable, every one of them. Especially—no, I’m not going to pick a favorite. They’re all wonderful.
A ROSS THOMAS READING LIST
The Cold War Swap (1966) *
Cast a Yellow Shadow (1967) *
The Seersucker Whipsaw (1967)
Singapore Wink (1969)
The Fools in Town are on Our Side (1970)
The Backup Men (1971) *
The Porkchoppers (1972)
If You Can't Be Good (1973)
The Money Harvest (1975)
Yellow Dog Contract (1976)
Chinaman's Chance (1978) **
The Eighth Dwarf (1979)
The Mordida Man (1981)
Missionary Stew (1983)
Out on the Rim (1987) **
The Fourth Durango (1989)
Twilight at Mac's Place (1990) *
Voodoo, Ltd (1992) **
Ah, Treachery (1994)
* Features Mac McCorkle, saloon owner, and Mike Padillo, spy, in Bonn, Germany
** Features Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, soldiers of fortune for WuDu Ltd.
Written as Oliver Bleeck
Philip St. Ives in all books
The Brass Go-Between (1969)
The Procane Chronicle (1971)
Protocol for Kidnapping (1971)
The Highbinders (1973)
No Questions Asked (1976)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.