NB: Proffered as part of this Friday's Forgotten Books. And a quick aside to anyone directed here as a result of FFB: I'm running a competition at the moment to win one of three copies of brand new illustrated book The Art of Movie Storyboards, so if that tickles your fancy, go here for more details.
Cast your minds back to the dying days of 2012, when I posted Existential Ennui's Review of the Year in Books and Comics (I'm going to assume here you follow Existential Ennui slavishly and have read every single thing I've ever posted), in which, among other matters, I lamented the lack of Existential Ennui posts on Ross Thomas over the preceding twelve (at least) months. See, despite thoroughly enjoying the half-dozen Thomas novels I'd read prior to 2012, I didn't manage to crack the spine of a single Thomas book last year. And so when I vowed, in a post titled On Reading (and Books Blogging) in February of this year, that henceforth I'd be basing my
reading not around which books I reckoned would make for good blog
posts, but around those I simply wanted to read (a fine distinction, I know, but hopefully I explained it a bit better in that post), one of the authors I
had in mind was Ross Thomas.
That it's taken me an additional six or seven months to finally get round to Thomas will give you an idea of how many must-read books I have on my shelves clamouring for my attention (the arrival of little Edie had something to do with it too), but if I'm only going to be able to find time for one Ross Thomas novel a year (a reasonable assumption, on the available evidence), I might as well pick the ones I'm keenest to read. Which brings me to Out on the Rim:
published in this edition by Century Hutchinson in the UK in 1987 (dust jacket design uncredited) and the same year by Mysterious Press in the US. It's the second in Thomas's three-book series featuring grifters Artie Wu and Quincy Durant (the third being 1992's Voodoo, Ltd.), and therefore the sequel to my favourite of the Thomas novels I've read thus far, 1978's Chinaman's Chance (which I loved so much I consequently acquired a signed edition). So you can see why I've been anticipating diving into Out on the Rim ever since I bought this copy three years ago... actually, in truth, I have and I haven't – because there's always that sense of trepidation with sequels to much-loved originals that they might not live up to expectations – or rather, that they might live down to them.
You'll be unsurprised to learn, then, that Out on the Rim isn't quite the equal of Chinaman's Chance. The elements are all in place: the long con; the cast of colourful – and colourfully named – characters; the double- and triple-crossing. But as Ethan Iverson notes in his mammoth overview of Thomas's oeuvre, there's so much obfuscation on the part of Thomas that it's hard to get a handle on exactly what's going on, even though what is going on is never less than agreeable, not to mention intriguing and frequently gripping.
The sometimes opaque and certainly labyrinthine plot centres on Booth Stallings, a terrorism expert tasked by... somebody (precisely who only becomes clear at the close of the story) with enticing guerilla-turned-terrorist Alejandro Espiritu – alongside whom Booth fought in World War II – down from the Philippine mountains with five million dollars – a sum which Booth, with the assistance of Wu and Durant, intends instead to steal. As with Chinaman's Chance, however, it's the characters who are the chief attraction... at least some of them – Booth in particular, who acts as the conscience (as far as that goes) of the book, but also loathsome bit-part hustler Boy Howdy (ah, those delicious Thomas names...) and, making a return from the first novel, Otherguy Overby, here exhibiting a steely determination that lifts him from supporting artiste to one of the most engaging players in the novel (I found the guessing game over where his true allegiances lie one of the more captivating aspects of the story).
By comparison Wu and especially Durant suffer somewhat. Artie is granted a few "smartest guy in the room" moments but poor old Quincy ("that fucking Durant") is relegated almost to the role of hired muscle, reduced to leaning against a succession of walls and glowering. And somewhere in the middle falls Georgia Blue, Quincy's one-time lover and Booth's right-hand woman, who for me never quite comes into focus as a protagonist in her own right.
Still, let's not get carried away with the criticism: this is, after all, Ross Thomas we're talking about, an author who to my mind is up there with Donald E. Westlake and Elmore Leonard in the American mystery writer pantheon – exalted company indeed, and with whom he shares certain sensibilities: a litheness of prose, an ear for dialogue, a way with character. And Out on the Rim amply displays all of those, and more. Don't take my word for it: Elmore Leonard himself blurbed the book, calling it "really good" and adding for emphasis: "I mean it's really good. Ross Thomas takes us Out on the Rim with a stunning array of characters working a plot that twists and slithers, never stops." Well said that man.
Appropriately enough, it's to Elmore Leonard that I'll be (re)turning next, with two classic 1970s novels, both in scarce editions, one of them incredibly so.