So then, before we get to Chinaman's Chance's story, let's have a look at that dustjacket I promised for this 1978 Hamish Hamilton hardback first British edition:
Give that cover a click so you can see it larger. There we go. Isn't it a thing of wonder?
As with the 1979 Hamilton edition of The Eighth Dwarf – and indeed the Hamilton editions of The Money Harvest and Yellow-Dog Contract – it's credited to Beverly Lebarrow – or rather Beverley le Barrow, as seems to be the correct spelling of her name... which begs the question, why did Hamilton persist in misspelling it? But anyway...
In fact, as with most of the Hamilton Ross Thomas editions, Beverley is only credited with the photography on this cover (the exception is Hamilton's 1977 edition of Yellow-Dog Contract, where she's credited with the full dustjacket design – presumably because of the text placement on that particular cover). That choice of a red bar under the title and author name presumably wasn't hers, then, but it only further serves to beautifully anchor the book in a very particular time. And if Beverley's cover for The Eighth Dwarf was a belligerently literal interpretation of that novel's title, then her photograph for Chinaman's Chance is even more brilliantly bald. It's also a fine addition to what's fast becoming a spectacular gallery of Beverley le Barrow barnstormers:
And the first person to put names to the two actors adorning the covers of Chinaman's Chance and The Eighth Dwarf – at least I think they're actors; I recognise them both from somewhere – wins a prize.
So, to the novel itself, which is quite simply one of the best books I've read this year. As with The Porkchoppers and The Cold War Swap, it's the characters that are the thing here. The plot is certainly engagingly convoluted, involving mob action in an American west coast town, the death of a congressman, the disappearance of a folk singer, two million dollars, and all manner of other gubbins besides. But the main attractions are friends and partners Artie Wu – the titular cover star – and Quincy Durant and their accompanying cast of grifters, politicos, CIA agents, mobsters, and assorted music biz types.
Wu and Durant are brilliant creations, the former an ebullient, overweight, cigar-smoking schemer with a Scottish wife, four kids and a firm belief that he's destined to be Emperor of China; the latter a reserved loner with mysterious scars on his back, a burden that's in danger of bringing him down and a way with making first rate coffee. They're on the make, but also out to make up for past mistakes, and as they go about their business in the corrupt town of Pelican City – ostensibly attempting to find missing folk singer Silk Armitage, although there's a lot more going on than that – they reel in a succession of shady types, both friend and foe.
On the friend side there's hardluck gambler Eddie McBride and mover and shaker Otherguy Overby, who got his name from never being left holding the bag (it was always "some other guy"). On the foe side there's low rent mobster Solly Gesini and shady tycoon-with-a-past Reginald Simms. And in-between are an assortment of cops, barflies, hookers and hangers-on, all equally well-drawn and well-rounded, no matter how small a part they play. It's evident from the off that not everyone will make it out the other side of the novel in one piece, but it's to Thomas's enormous credit that you really feel the loss of those that don't escape unscathed, no matter which side they're fighting for.
Chinaman's Chance is one of those novels you just don't want to end, such splendid company are the characters, in particular Artie and, in a quieter but perhaps more affecting way, Quincy. Because while Wu is the more obviously entertaining creation, the damaged Durant ultimately gets further under your skin. Luckily, Thomas wrote a further two books starring the two friends, 1987's Out on the Rim and 1992's Voodoo, Ltd., so I've still got those to look forward to.
In the meantime, next in Ross Thomas Week I'll be taking a peek behind the scenes at how the editorial staff at Penguin went about creating their paperback edition of Thomas's 1981 novel, The Mordida Man. Exciting stuff and no mistake.