In addition to spies, I’m very much a political junkie. For those who are aware of his work that should make it no surprise that the writer Ross Thomas is one of my favorite authors. Although he rose to prominence with a spy story – his first book The Cold War Swap which he banged out over a relatively short period of time, got published and promptly won the Edgar for Best Novel – his best works focused on politics. Thomas cut his teeth as a political advisor and seemed to have heard about or been actively a part of every sort of shady activity you could think of to win an election.
regarding his novels, to put it in the parlance of Hamilton, if you want to be in the room where it happens, Ross Thomas puts you there. Were Thomas still alive today I could easily see him on the writing staff of a show like Veep. He had an innate understanding of the lengths people will go for power, be it small town America or Capital Hill. Thomas would also show just how easily the masses could be manipulated and that everyone involved in an election was trying to be the ones pulling the strings.
Ethan Iverson took a definitive look at all of Thomas’ novels and it’s a well worth reading to get a sense of the various books he wrote. My personal favorites are –
The Fools in Town are on my Side, which has one of the best titles of all time and looks at a bare knuckle small town election.
The Money Harvest, which manages to make an interesting (and understandable) story out of wheat futures.
The Seersucker Whipsaw, which mines Thomas’ real life experience as a political consultant for an election in Nigeria only marred by an upbeat ending that doesn’t fit Thomas’ cynical point of view.
Two releases that didn’t receive much discussion in Iverson’s piece were two small press issues – Brown Paper and some String and Spies, Thumbsuckers, etc.
The first is actually a speech that Thomas gave to The California Mystery and Suspense Conference in 1987 that was later printed, signed and sold. In it, Thomas talks about his journey becoming a full time writer, he started writing fiction at the relatively late age of 38, and the advice he received on how to sell his newly written novel.
Let’s say that you have written your first novel and have had it nicely typed. Now what do you do with it? Do you try to secure the services of an agent? Do you shyly ask someone to read it–other than your perspicaceous typist? Or do you simply bundle it off to Harper’s or Knopf and hope for the best?
When confronted with this same problem, I didn’t have the slightest idea of what to do. So I called a friend of mine who had published a novel that had sunk almost immediately from sight. Still, he was the only novelist I knew. So I informed him, rather diffidently, that I, too, had written a novel and now needed advice and counsel. In other words, what now?
I still remember the long silence over the phone. Then the deep sigh. And then the advice: “Well, first,” he said, “you get yourself some brown paper and some string, wrap it all up, and mail it to William Morrow and Company. And then you might write a letter to let them know it’s coming.
And that’s what I did. A month later I received a post card acknowledging that William Morrow and Company had indeed received my MS–an abbreviation that I interpreted to mean masterpiece.
It’s typical Thomas; self-deprecating, funny and crazy but true to life.
Spies, Thumbsuckers, etc. is a collection of a few short stories and newspaper articles that Thomas had released over time. It’s short, only about 37 pages and collecting 6 different pieces along with an introduction.
Among the stories are a Christmas themed story, a look at the breaking story of Oleg Gordievsky most recently told in Ben Macintyre’s riveting The Spy and the Traitor, a look at le Carré’s first two books and more.
Another classic quote comes from a remembrance of John D. MacDonald he wrote –
Several years ago, more than several, in fact, my English publisher sent me a letter and a clipping. The letter simple read: “You have friends at Court.” The clipping was from the Times Literary Supplement, which has asked several authors to nominate writers they thought most neglected. I found I had been nominated by both Eric Ambler and John D. MacDonald, which was more neglect than I really cared for.
I’ll leaving you with one final nugget that I don’t recall reading anywhere else. In an article on marines Thomas says –
I first became aquatinted with embassy-type Marines more than 25 years ago in Germany where I was loosely attached to the U.S. Embassy in Bonn.
Why is this interesting? Well that article was originally published in 1987. 25 years before would have been 1962, the same timeframe John le Carré would have been knocking around Bonn as a spy based at the UK embassy. Did Thomas and le Carré run into each other at one of the many embassy parties? It certainly seems at least in the realm of possibility. Fan fiction writers, sharpen your pencils.
Looking at both of these limited releases, they are a bit of a rarity but quite affordable for a completist collector. Spies, Thumbsuckers, etc. was released as a edition of 300 signed copies and 50 specially bound signed editions. You can pretty easily get a copy for between $40 – $120, and potentially even cheaper if you keep your eyes open like I did.
I’m not sure how many copies of Brown Paper and some String were printed but a copy can be purchased currently for around $50.
Like many authors from the 60’s and 70’s, Thomas has fallen out of favor with the modern reading public but if you are interested in both politics and spies his work is essential reading and should be searched out.