Tuesday 19 October 2010

The Mac's Place Quartet: Spy in the Vodka (The Cold War Swap) by Ross Thomas

As promised at the end of last week, over the coming week (and indeed probably into next week, and perhaps even beyond) Existential Ennui will largely be focusing on two writers who between them have monopolised much of my book-collecting time this year. On Sunday – slightly earlier than planned, but the muse overtook me – I posted the first of a number of forthcoming missives on Donald E. Westlake, who, regular readers will know, has been a firm friend for most of the year. And today sees the first in a series of posts on a writer who, thanks to Book Glutton, has recently become something of a pal too: Ross Thomas. Doubtless there'll be posts on other matters mixed in here and there, but Westlake and Thomas will loom large for the foreseeable future.

And let's open the Thomas account with something a little special:

That there's the UK hardback first edition of Spy in the Vodka by Ross Thomas, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1967, with a dustjacket designed by Peter Calcott. This is Thomas' debut novel... a statement which may have anyone who's au fait with Thomas' oeuvre, particularly anyone American, scratching their head. After all, as any Ross Thomas enthusiast will tell you, his debut novel – perhaps even his best-known novel – was 1966's The Cold War Swap. And that statement is also true.

So how can Spy in the Vodka and The Cold War Swap both be Ross Thomas' debut novel? You guessed it: they're the same book. As often happens with UK editions of American books (and vice versa, of course), The Cold War Swap gained a new title for its UK debut. But only for this first hardback printing, it seems; as early as 1968, Hodder had reverted to the original title for their paperback edition. Which begs the question, why change the title at all? Especially when the title you changed it to bears a remarkable resemblance to another espionage thriller by another American author published in the UK in the same year – 1967 – this time by T.V. Boardman. Namely, Spy in the Ointment by our aforementioned friend Donald E. Westlake. Perhaps Hodder realised the close resemblance of the titles after the fact, which was why they reverted the US title. Pure speculation on my part, mind.

Copies of Spy in the Vodka aren't exactly abundant; there's a few on AbeBooks, mostly going for rather a lot of money, and mostly with dustjackets that are in various states of disrepair – as is the one adorning my copy. Seems this particular jacket is rather delicate (see also those two Le Carre books I picked up). I mentioned in this really annoying post that I'd be returning to one of the two series that Thomas wrote during his career, and as well as being his first book, Spy in the Vodka/The Cold War Swap is also the first book in that series. Much more importantly, however (ahem), it's also the first book by Thomas that I've read – and I like what I see.

It's narrated by Mac McCorkle, an American who owns a bar, Mac's Place, in Bonn, West Germany (this is during the Cold War, remember, when Germany was two nations). His business partner is one Mike Padillo, who is also an occasional and increasingly reluctant secret agent – and perhaps even an assassin – for the US government. McCorkle drinks too much, carouses too much, but he isn't a young man anymore, while Padillo, for his part, has had enough of the double life he leads. For his latest mission Padillo is tasked with carrying out an exchange of spies in Berlin, but there's a twist, and inevitably things go somewhat sour.

It's very much a book of two halves: in the first half we follow Mac as he tries to find out what's happened to the vanished Padillo, and while there is violence, there's an easygoing lilt to the story that lulls you into a false sense of security. Once Padillo reappears halfway through, however, events take a sinister turn, and there are double-crosses and sleeper agents and killings aplenty, culminating in nightmarish attempt to escape from East Berlin. The tone throughout is resigned and world-weary, although leavened by (still cynical) humour and dry wit; as with Le Carre there are no real winners or losers here, just men (and women) trying to get out from under and ending up having to save their own skin into the bargain. It's Cold War realpolitik but on a human scale, which is, I think, the best thing about the book. I'm certainly inclined to read more Ross Thomas... which is just as well as I have more Ross Thomas to read. About which, more soon...


  1. Spy in the Vodka? You had me worried for a bit - I thought you'd gone off collecting some other Ross Thomas.

    The back of the dust jacket is nothing but an ad for another book by a different writer. What's up with that? (And also, what do we know about Francis Clifford and The Naked Runner? Is this something we should look into?)

    And can you believe Thomas wrote The Cold War Swap in six weeks? Amazing.

  2. Six weeks? Good lord. Mind you, I suspect I've cranked out an equivalent number of words on here in the past six weeks. What a bloody waste. I could've written a novel instead. A crap novel, but still a novel.

    That's the first I've heard of Francis Clifford too, but I am intrigued. He was a British thriller writer by the looks of it; scant info online, but I might do some digging...

  3. Good to see other Ross Thomas fans: I've linked to this from my books blog

    Cheers, Paul

  4. And I've added your excellent blog to my Blog List!