Wednesday 9 March 2011

Cast a Yellow Shadow (Mac's Place Quartet #2) by Ross Thomas: A Review

"In this world," wrote Benjamin Franklin, "nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Well, evidently the miserable bastard never read this blog, because one thing you can be certain of on Existential Ennui is that there'll always be room for Ross Thomas. I've written about the American spy/political/thriller author many, many times now, most recently during the week's worth of posts on his pseudonymous Oliver Bleeck novels known rather prosaically as Bleeck Week. But I've got still more to come from him, with a planned run of posts on some of the scarce British first editions of his books due in the not-too-distant future. For now, though, and as part of Spy Fiction Fortnight, let's turn our attention to an early espionage novel by Thomas, the second in his quartet centring on the saloon Mac's Place, originally situated in Bonn, Germany, now reopened in Washington, DC.

Cast a Yellow Shadow was first published in the US in 1967 (1968 in the UK), and was Thomas's second novel, following 1966's The Cold War Swap (published in 1967 as Spy in the Vodka in Britain). As with its predecessor, the story is once again a first-person affair, narrated by the co-owner of Mac's Place, Mac McCorkle. Following the events of The Cold War Swap, Mac has upped sticks from Germany and plonked himself – new wife, new bar (the original Bonn establishment was blown up in The Cold War Swap), German bartender and all – in Washington. However, his partner in the saloon, occasional (reluctant) spy and hitman Mike Padillo, is still missing, presumed drowned, having tumbled off a barge during a deadly struggle at the end of the first book. Presumed, that is, by everyone except Mac, who later received a one-word postcard from Padillo, simply saying "Well".

So when Mac gets a cryptic call from local racketeer Hardman, informing him that a man stepped into a fight at the Baltimore docks, helping out an associate of Hardman's, Mush, but getting injured in the process, Mac realises it can only be Padillo. Mush has brought Padillo back to DC, and so, reasoning that Mike's CIA handlers believe him dead, Mac goes to collect him. But where Padillo goes, trouble is never far behind, and when the two of them and Mush get back to Mac and his wife Fredl's apartment, they find Fredl missing and a ransom note demanding Padillo carry out an unspecified assignment in order to secure her return. Thus the scene is set for another tale of duplicitous double-dealing – with an extra side-order of double-cross – as McCorkle and Padillo are drawn into a plot to assassinate a visiting African Prime Minister.

If there was one lesson to be drawn from The Cold War Swap, it was: Trust No One. Padillo and McCorkle operate in a decidedly murky world of subterfuge and backstabbing, where allies can quickly become enemies – if the price is right. Trouble is, having established that template in the first book, when the double-crosses start arriving in Cast a Yellow Shadow, they're not quite so unexpected. There's one big switch of allegiances in the story which should by all rights have had the same impact as that of Cooky's in The Cold War Swap, but because I was kind of waiting for it to happen – anticipating it – it didn't come as so much of a shock.

The plot of Cast a Yellow Shadow isn't as propulsive as its predecessor's either. Perhaps it's the shift in location from frontline buffer state Germany to rather more secure Washington – a nest of vipers, for sure, but still the Capital City of the Free World – but there's nothing to match the gaunt intensity of the first book's desperate mission into East Berlin. Much of the proceedings consist of meetings and negotiations and phone-calls, interspersed with the odd light lunch or beverage back at Mac's Place. At one point Padillo enlists the aid of a triumvirate of shady associates, and then gives them bugger all to do except wait around for an opportunity to knife him in the back. There's a distinct deficiency of momentum; it's all a little too relaxed. Indeed, as Mac becomes increasingly agitated at his inability to rescue his missus, it's almost as if he begins to sense (in a meta sort of way) the holding-pattern plot he's trapped in.

All that said, I don't want to be too down on the book. The lack of progress in retrieving Fredl does lend a certain credence to Mac's palpable frustration, and he remains as likable a character as he was in The Cold War Swap. There's also plenty of Ross Thomas's thrust and parry dialogue – for example this back-and-forth between between Mac and Padillo in the back office at Mac's Place, displaying both a wry writ and a nice feel for surroundings:

Padillo rose from the couch and started to pace the small room. There wasn't much space for it—five good steps, and then he had to turn and head back.

"You're not making much headway," I said.

"It's called thinking."

"I'd join you, except that there's not enough room."

There was a knock at the door and I said come in and one of the waiters entered and set the martinis down on the desk. I thanked him and he left.

"Maybe the vodkas will help," I said.

"Nothing like a two- or three-martini idea."

"I've had some fine ones on four."

Padillo lighted a cigarette. He inhaled, coughed, and blew most of it out. "You think filters help?"

"I have no idea."

"I quit smoking in Africa."

"For how long?"

"Two days; a little over two days. Three-and-a-half hours over two days to be exact."

"What happened?"

"I admitted I had no will power. It was a great relief."

"I'd say your will power can lick my will power."

"I don't think it would be much of a match."

And there's lots more where that came from. So even though, of the five Thomas novels I've read thus far, this one was, for me, the least successful – it feels to me like a book Thomas was required to write, rather than (as with The Cold War Swap, which he bashed out in six weeks) one he simply had to write – the whole thing's so elegantly put together I can happily forgive any inadequacies. And let's face it: a slightly subpar Ross Thomas is still an enticing prospect, so if you think I judge too harshly, bear in mind Thomas on an off day is still better than many other authors on their best. Needless to say, I'll definitely be giving the next Mac's Place instalment, The Backup Men, a go before too long.

Anyway, next in Spy Fiction Fortnight, I'll be taking a look at a first edition of spy novel by League of Gentleman co-creator and Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss...

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