“Kissing her, Stallings decided, was like kissing your first older woman—the one with all the wicked experience. He then decided not to decide anything else and simply go along with whatever happened except that what happened was far from simple. Instead, it was intricate, a trifle wild, totally sensual and innovative even to Stallings who thought, until now, that he long ago had crossed his last sexual frontier. At one point he experienced a miser’s glow when he realized that this night in this bed in suite 542 of the Manila Hotel would turn into his main account at the Bank of Fantasy—and that he could draw on it without limit for as long as he lived.”
I like the fact that Ross Thomas, often described as a “mystery” author, capitalized Bank of Fantasy in the previous paragraph. Yes, many of Thomas’ 25 books were published by The Mysterious Press and Thomas twice received the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award. [See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Thomas_(author).] Yet, when I think of the term mystery, I think of the 12 novels of S.S. Van Dine, published in the 1920’s and 30’s, whose main character is the rich and disarmingly pretentious Philo Vance. Vance’s name became a synonym with the murder mystery sleuth who gathers the suspects in one room and points to the killer. In a murder mystery, the plot centers on a dead body and the action revolves around solving who committed the murder.
The erotic excerpt in the first paragraph of this blog posting is from Out on the Rim, published in 1987, a year after Ferdinand Marcos went into exile and Corazon Aquino took power in the Philippines. Out on the Rim is the story of a plot to bribe a left-wing Philippine guerilla leader with $5 million to stop fighting. If Alejandro Espiritu (whom everyone not speaking Tagalog calls Al) retires, it will add to the stability of the new Aquino regime which needs all the stability it can get. As with Thomas’ other work, there may be a gratuitous dead body here or there, but the focus is not on solving a murder, but on stealing the money or getting involved in some other nefarious scheme.
When Thomas died in December, 1995, The New York Times obituary headline described him as an “Author of Stylish Political Thrillers.” The Times said, “The writer Stephen King, noting Mr. Ross’s gift for character and witty dialogue, once called him ‘the Jane Austen of the political espionage story.’ Other critics place him in the hard-boiled tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett.”
This is an appreciation of Ross Thomas whose fictional characters befriended me in times of personal disasters, such as radiation treatment for cancer and divorce, in a way that the heavy hitters in fiction could not do. The importance of light fiction was pressed home to me after my first divorce when I tried to ameliorate the pain by reading Henry James’ stylistically brilliant, low-on-action Wings of a Dove. It didn’t work.
Recovering from my second divorce, I read Ross Thomas, most notably; The Fools in Town Are On Our Side (1970). The main character Lucifer C. Dye has just been fired from a boutique intelligence agency known only as Section Two (definitely not the CIA). Dye is hired by Victor Orcutt Associates, a small company profiting from urban corruption. Orcutt hires Dye “to corrupt me a city.” When their city is sufficiently corrupted, the company’s reputedly reform-minded clients plan to take over after the fast-approaching municipal election.
Specifically, this posting is an appreciation of Thomas’ minor characters. The lovers who begin this article are good examples. Booth Stallings is the author of a book on terrorism and a Washington consultant. Georgia Blue is a cashiered Secret Service Agent clandestinely in touch with Imelda Marcos.
At the beginning of the novel Stallings first admires Georgia Blue from afar at D.C.’s stuffy Hotel Madison where he is waiting for power broker Harry Crites:
“Harry Crites was twenty-two minutes late when the muscle walked into the Madison and read the lobby with the standard quick not quite bored glance that flitted over Booth Stallings, lingered for a moment on the two Saudis, counted the help and marked the spare exists. After that the muscle gave her left earlobe a slight tug, as if checking the small gold earring.
“Booth Stallings immediately nominated her for one of the three most striking women he had ever seen. Her immense poise made him peg her age at thirty-two or thirty-three. But he knew he could be five years off either way because of the way she moved, which was like a young athlete with eight prime years still ahead of her.”
My use of the term minor character might be better understood if we use the concept of fifth business employed by the late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Davies quotes Thomas Overskou: “’Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the dénouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies…’” Davies observed that fifth business characters did not necessarily have glamorous roles; they had steady work because the plot could not continue without them.
So, well-defined are Thomas’ minor/fifth business characters that it is possible to describe the plot of Out on the Rim without ever mentioning the book’s complex main characters. Crites hires Stallings because during World War II Stallings fought against the Japanese side-by-side with Al. Crites says that because Al knows Stallings and trusts him, Stallings is in an excellent position to bribe Al. Stallings negotiates a $250,000 fee for doing so. Later that evening, instead of settling for the fee, Stallings decides to steal the entire $5 million and realizes that doing so will require help. He then begins to employ a group of shady characters, one of whom is Georgia Blue.
Jacqueline Bisset plays her own shady Ross Thomas minor character in the 1976 film St. Ives. As an aside, Bisset, who Newsweek Magazine once called, “the most beautiful actress of all times,” is a primary and unexpected motivating factor in my writing this appreciation, not only of Ross Thomas but also of Bisset. Her role in Rich and Famous (1981) came to mind one bleak 5 degree day here at State College, PA. For distraction, I ordered a stack of Jacqueline Bisset DVDs by mail.
When I began watching St. Ives, a name that seemed familiar, but not immediately recognizable, the realization that Charles Bronson was the star vexed me. Bronson is an actor who performs every role as if he were a character from a one-dimensional Mickey Spillane novel, playing the private detective who orders bar whiskey and calls women broads.
Then I read the following screen credit: “Based on the novel The Procane Chronicle by Oliver Bleeck.” This startled me. Oliver Bleeck is Ross Thomas’ pseudonym for a series of five novels about Philip St. Ives, who wrote a column about crooks, lowlifes, and unsavory characters until his newspaper folded. By chance, a loyal reader, a thief, asks his lawyer to hire St. Ives as a middleman to sell back stolen jewelry to its owners. The fee from the first effort as a go-between is so profitable that St. Ives is able to survive by performing his brief services 4 times a year.
The inept casting of Bronson, an incompetent screenplay, and rotten directing destroyed forever the chances of Jacqueline Bisset to play a great role in a great Ross Thomas-based film. The roles I had in mind for Bisset were comparable to Myrna Loy playing Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934) and Mary Astor playing Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Both movies were based on novels by Dashiell Hammett, a writer to whom Ross Thomas has been compared. The movies gave Hammett’s characters a magical power best illustrated by the fact that after seeing, for example, The Thin Man I have never again been able to reread the book without envisioning William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. That is a good thing.
Seeking to torture myself by cataloging just how brutally Bronson had destroyed my dream for Ross Thomas and Jacqueline Bisset, I sought to obtain a copy of The Procane Chronicle. Following Thomas’ death all but one of his novels went out of print. Recently, there has been a small Thomas revival. St. Martin’s Press has been reissuing his novels, and scattershot appreciations continue to appear in print and on the web. However, The Procane Chronicle is still out of print and my used copy from a reader in Oregon arrived slowly in time for spring.
In The Procane Chronicle, St. Ives is hired to retrieve the detailed diaries of master thief Abner Procane. Procane’s diaries, referred to as leather-bound ledgers, detail each of his crimes and also serve as planning documentation for future jobs. After someone steals the ledgers from Procane’s safe, Procane fears that their disclosure could result in the police arresting him for his crimes or result in the necessity to abort a million dollar heist he has been planning for months.
Procane introduces St. Ives to Procane’s apprentice Janet Whistler. In the novel Thomas says about Whistler: “She was attractive enough if you liked tall, rangy girls with slender figures and easy, natural movements. I didn’t mind them.” The New York Times, reviewing Bisset’s performance in the role, says, “Finally, there is what must be the least explicit sex scene of the year, Miss Bisset sits down on [St. Ives’] bed smoldering. She puts one hand to her zipper and, believe it or not, the scene ends. Miss Bisset, who does wonderful things for silly roles and once in a while is allowed to do wonderful things for good ones, makes that unpulled zipper seem like an X-rating all by itself.”
St. Ives’ talented supporting cast, who sadly are unable to save this movie, also includes John Houseman, who plays Abner Procane, and Maximilian Schell, who plays a psychiatrist whom Procane consults with obsessively to make sure that Procane has not become the kind of criminal who likes to be caught.
Early in the film Charles Bronson tells Jacqueline Bisset, in what is intended to be a flirtatious remark, “You have a lot of great looking bits and pieces.” As a 60 year-old I have special license to complain that part of the problem is the disparity in age between Bronson, then 55, and Bisset, then 32. There is no romantic chemistry between them (despite the fact the Bisset just can not help being sexy).
Thomas’ St. Ives is in his late 30s, lives in a seedy New York hotel, and has a cynical, wise cracking manner that is engaging and appealing to a variety of fascinating women. New York characters often do not travel well when transported by directorial fiat to Los Angeles, thus making St. Ives’ quirkiness incomprehensible. Bronson lives in seedy Los Angeles hotel, but he also drives a new Jaguar.
Especially revealing is Bronson incomprehensible ambition. Thomas’ St. Ives proclaimed that his lack of ambition dominates his life. When Thomas’ St. Ives loses his job as a columnist, he does not write a novel. Writing novel is work. St. Ives prefers being a go-between because it lets him do nothing for most of the year.
By comparison, Bronson is portrayed as a columnist who quits his job (he does not lose it) to write a novel. When the movie begins, Bronson has already written three chapters. Throughout the film people ask Bronson how the book is going, something I would never do for fear that Bronson would shoot me and because I find it impossible to believe that Bronson could even start a novel. As for what a go-between actually does, the fundamental glue that holds the story together, Bronson is clueless. Sometimes he holds an airline bag filled with money; sometimes he doesn’t.
Still, I remain hopeful that additional movies will be made from Thomas’s work and Thomas’ characters will receive the respect they deserve. I am especially eager to see Georgia Blue on film, but have resigned myself to the likelihood that Bisset, now 63, will not be playing her.
In Rich and Famous, Bisset plays a fictionalized Susan Sontag standing by the fireplace in a California beach house passionately appreciating Marcel Proust, saying Proust was a genius with a brain full of nitroglycerine. My instant desire was to turn off the DVD, trudge through the snow, and obtain a copy of Remembrance of Things Past.
But that would be wrong. I have aches and pains I have not told you about. Meals on Wheels does not deliver madeleine. I have my loyalty to the characters of the mystery-espionage genre to protect, authors who have already demonstrated that I can rely upon them to see me through tough times, especially Ross Thomas, S.S. Van Dine, Rex Stout, Eric Ambler, and John le Carré.
–Joel Solkoff [written before the Presidential election of 2008, revived while reading Ross Thomas’ Missionary Stew to distract me from the way President Obama is destroying the ability of people who cannot walk to obtain power chairs and scooters from Medicare]
Copyright © 2012 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.