(Editor’s note: This is the seventh entry in our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Tim Maleeny, author of the private investigator Cape Weathers series.)
Ross Thomas sometimes gets overlooked when people talk about masters of the genre, or he gets confused with another Ross who deserves to be on everyone’s must-read list, the great Ross Macdonald (whose real name was Kenneth Millar, but that’s another story.)
Ross Thomas, though, stands apart because he redefined the modern thriller, and the best example of his unique take on a classic form is Chinaman’s Chance (1978).
Until Thomas came along there was a clear distinction between hard-boiled mysteries and international thrillers, with little to no overlap. Thomas changed all that, bringing the moral ambiguity of a crime novel into the complicated political legacy of the post-Vietnam era.
Hard-boiled crime novels followed directly in the path carved so beautifully by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, books that lifted the veil from civilized society to expose the seedy underside of human nature. They were close-in human dramas, carried by sharp dialogue, spare descriptions, and an undercurrent of cynicism that pulled you inexorably toward an ending that resolved the mystery without fully answering the moral questions it raised.
Thrillers, by contrast, made a clear distinction between good guys and bad guys. The heroes were larger than life and the stakes high, the fate of the free world hanging precariously in the balance. Thrillers were derivative of the pulp adventures of the 1930s and ’40s. Post World War II, the stories typically featured a brave everyman or soldier-spy fighting against forces bent on the destruction of all we hold dear. The bad guys (typically Nazis) would stop at nothing, and the good guys (anyone who wasn’t a Nazi) would sacrifice everything to save the day.
But the political landscape had its own moral ambiguity beyond anything found in crime fiction when Thomas published his first novel, The Cold War Swap, in 1966. People were cynical about the notion that their government always knew what it was doing, and there was ample evidence that organizations such as the CIA might sometimes operate in a world where so-called “good guys” happened to be the people you were in bed with today, as opposed to the group holding the moral high ground.
Thomas created characters that could navigate this uncertain world effortlessly, characters so smart and likable that you often forget which side of the law they might be on. In the end you don’t really care, as long as they wind up on top, because you not only wish you were as cool, sharp, and funny as they are, but you want to believe you’re going to see them again.
The two characters in question here are Artie Wu (the “Chinaman” of the title) and his partner Quincy Durant. They’ve worked for the government at various times in their shady past, but more often than not they work for themselves. They share a history in the spy game that has given the pair their own moral compass, which never seems to waver (even though it confounds everyone around them). They are lovable rogues, and like their creator, they are masters of the long con. The plot of Chinaman’s Chance has more twists and turns than The Sting. The story begins when Artie Wu, pretender to the imperial throne of China, goes for a walk along the beach and trips on a dead pelican. This random mishap leads to a meeting with his beachfront neighbor, the “man with six greyhounds,” but it quickly becomes apparent that nothing happens by chance in the world of Artie Wu. What begins as an elaborate confidence scam turns into a murder investigation when Artie, Quincy, and their grifter pal Otherguy Overby are hired to find a missing folk singer suspected of killing her boyfriend--who just happens to have been a highly influential U.S. senator. The pace is lightning-fast as the plot turns in on itself, each bend revealing another detail of these beautifully drawn characters.
Those are just some of the reasons this work and its author are significant to lovers of crime fiction, but if I were to sweep aside any academic horseshit I might have dropped along the way, I’d tell you the real reason to read this novel is that it’s an absolute delight from the first page. The dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny, the plot as twisted as the characters. This book can be read more than once and never gets old.
Ross Thomas paved the way for many contemporary writers who bring velocity to their plots without losing a third dimension from their characters. If you love mysteries and thrillers and want the best of both in a single novel, pick up Chinaman’s Chance.
That’s all folks, but look for something completely different next week from the inimitable David Corbett, author of the noir classic Done for a Dime (2003) as well as the recently Edgar Award-nominated Blood of Paradise.
READ MORE: “Remembering Ross Thomas,” by Tony Hiss (The Atlantic Monthly).