Tuesday 23 November 2010

Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas: Book Review and a Bit More on Beverley le Barrow

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.


  1. Your Ross Thomas posts are brilliant. They are what I searched for but never found when I wanted to read more about RT back when I started reading his books.

  2. I will hunt those editions down to the end of the earth.

    Is it possible that the dwarf is David Rappaport? http://popcultureaddict.com/movies/midgetspage3/

    It's hard to tell because I can't find a picture of him where he has a similar expression, but a lot of the facial features are similar and the timing is right.

  3. Coming from a Thomas aficionado such as yourself, BG, that's high praise indeed. Thanks you -- and really, it's all your doing anyway: you're the one got me started on this.

    Good guess, Olman, but no, I don't think it's Rappaport. I actually went through the cast of Time Bandits (I know, I know: I really have no defence for any of this) to see if it was any of them and discounted them all. You might be right, but I dunno: doesn't quite seem like him.

  4. I should not have doubted your google fu, your Majesty!

    I was thinking of going through each of the Time Bandits, but that was going too far for me. I can only wonder what someone would think if they walked into my office as I was searching Midget Dwarf British Actors 1970s! :)

  5. Yeah, luckily I did that at home, where, even if my long-suffering girlfriend had bothered to check what I was doing, she'd have simply surmised I was doing research for my blog.

    I really need to get out more...

  6. Once you guys have identified the dwarf, any chance you could figure out Durant's special recipe for coffee? I've been wanting to have some of that coffee for ages.

  7. Oh yeah, we never do quite get to the bottom of that. Does it crop up again in the other books?