Sunday, June 17, 2012

What's your favorite Washington and/or political crime novel?

It's a strange land, where normal rules don't apply, where shifting tribal loyalties make life dangerous for the unwary, where even the most careful and idealistic visitors may soon get sucked into the intrigue and become indistinguishable from those whom they had previously affected to deplore.

It's Washington, D.C., and it's the setting for Ross Thomas's 1967 international thriller Cast a Yellow Shadow. Less overtly a satire of politics than the two Thomas novels I'd read previously (The Seersucker Whipsaw and The Fools in Town Are on Our Side), the book is nonetheless full of snippets of dialogue and nuggets of description evocative of their place and time in politics:
“The call came while I was trying to persuade a lameduck Congressman to settle his tab before he burned his American Express card. The tab was $18.35 and the Congressman was drunk and had already made a pyre of the cards he held from Carte Blanche, Standard Oil, and the Diner’s Club. He had used a lot of matches as he sat there at the bar drinking Scotch and burning the cards in an ashtray. `Two votes a precinct,' he said for the dozenth time. `Just two lousy votes a precinct.' “`When they make you an ambassador, you’ll need all the credit you can get,' I said as Karl handed me the phone.”
and
“They liked to mention that Hennings Van Zandt was eighty-two years old and that he had been one of the first whites to be born in the country that he served as Prime Minister. He had watched it evolve from a virtually unexplored territory into a private preserve of the British South Africa Company, then into a colony, and finally into a self-governing country. Now he claimed it was independent, but Britain said it wasn’t and that its declaration of independence was tantamount to treason. Because of the chromium, the U.S. had made only gruff warnings about not recognizing the declaration.”
and
“It sounds like a typical American intelligence plot,” he said. “Only 2,032 things could go wrong—and probably will.”
Here are some notes about Ross Thomas and a Thomas bibliography. While you browse them, ponder these questions: What is your favorite Washington crime novel? Your favorite political crime novel?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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48 Comments:

Blogger Matthew E said...

I'll take Westlake's Put a Lid on It, for obvious reasons.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Does Pelecanos count?

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Graham Powell said...

I liked PUT A LID but THE FOOLS IN TOWN was just brilliant. AH TREACHERY was good, too.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew, I've read about half of Westlake's books but not that one. I do know that the protagonist gets sucked up into a conspiracy, and I also know that Westlake was so celebrated for Parker and his comic novels that he doesn't always get credit for his satirical chops.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti: Pelecanos counts ... if you explain who he creates memorable pictures of the city.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Graham, I haven't read Ah, Treachery. Of the two Ross Tomases I have read, I like All the Fools ... and The Seersucker Whipsaw a bit better than Cast a Yellow Shadow. But I'll probably read more Thomas during this election season.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

The Owen Parry novel Faded Coat of Blue is not really a Washington DC novel exactly, but it has many scenes of Washington during the Civil War.Parry, who is really crime novelist Ralph Peters under another name is a wonderful writer. I hadn't thought about his Abel Jones series for some time. They are worth getting back to. I should probably check out Peters other novels as well, because I was quite impressed with his writing voice as Parry.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I like the idea of Washington during wartime. I have read that Washington was more or less a sleepy Southern town until World War II. That would be a novel sight.

Thomas' book, published in 1967, has one passage that looks back to that earlier Washington:

"From the chest-high cement railing that ran around the roof you could look down Pennsylvania and see the grey mass of the Executive Office Building which once was considered plenty large enough for the State Department as well as the entire military establishment—now bursting the seams of the Pentagon."

June 17, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Nice sense of understatement in that one.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And that's the only passage of its kind in the novel, which makes it all the more tantalizing.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Gordon Harries said...

Pelecanos really rates this guy, as it happens.

I'd also argue that Pelecanos is both a crime novelist and a political novelist.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gordon, I read more non-American crime fiction than American, and I've often said that French, Italian, and Spanish crime writers seem more ready to inject political concerns into their novels than American writers are. Pelecanos is always the guy people come up with as a rebuttal. So you may well be right.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I think I've mentioned before that Dominique Manotti is my favourtie for mixing politics and crime. As you mention, European writers are far more likely to add politics to mix. Another excellent writer in this regard is Julian Rathbone. He wrote a lot of spy thrillers that were also very political. Here's my blog piece on Manotti.

June 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Manotti, Manchette, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, Jean-Patrick Manchette, and Andrea Camilleri are the European crime writers I have in mind. The frequency with which Pelecanos' name comes up makes me want to read him.

I'm open to suggestions from Pelecanos fans abotu where I might start.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

David Brinkley (the now-deceased journalist) wrote a wonderful memoir of DC and its rapid change from sleepy Southern town to big Government-dominated city in his Washington Goes to War. It's wonderful.

One of the best political crime/thrillers I can think of is Fletcher Knebel's and Charles Bailey's "Seven Days in May," later made into a very good movie. No straight crime novels are coming to mind right now.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Linkmeister, I have a special fondness for David Brinkley, even though he got so cranky towards the end. I will have to check this out. Thanks.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ross Thomas was around long enough to have read Brinkley's book, and I would not shock me if he did. I'm not sure I had known that Seven Days in May was a book, but you did not have to tell me who David Brinkley was. I am just old enough to remember The Huntley-Brinkley Report.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Unlike Seana, though, I don't recall The Cranky Brinkley Report.

June 18, 2012  
Anonymous Diogenes said...

The novels by Leonardo Sciascia are the most powerful I have read on crime and political society.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

You must not have watched him as the special guest on Presidential conventions, then.

I for some reason retain a very early dream from the age of about four,in which David Brinkley came to our Venice, California apartment, and I was very happy to show him my flying carpet.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'd have been grateful to be shown a flying carpet. Brinkley probably just snorted.

I loved the sound of "The Huntley-Brinkley Report," and always regretted that more television news teams did not have such euphonious monikers. Years later, when I worked in Marlboro, the Worcester Telegram & Gazetta had one reporter named Ted Bunker and another named Peter Donker. I used to suggest that they team up.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Diogenes: I think of them as the most powerful I have read about the infiltration of crime into the fabric of everyday life, an even more difficult feat to pull off. But that is an excellent suggestion. Thanks.

Camilleri mentions Sciascia from time to time in the Montalbano novels, and I suspect he knews Sciascia's work and quite possible knew Sciascia himself.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

No, this was the young David Brinkley. He wouldn't have snorted. Especially since it was flying around the living room.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, he actually used your flying carpet. I hope he said thanks and meant it. FOrty years later, he would have thanked you with ill grace, if at all.

June 18, 2012  
Anonymous Diogenes said...

Peter

Camilleri and Sciascia were great friends. According to this Guardian article, Sartorelli partly based Montalbano on Sciascia.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2006/oct/14/featuresreviews.guardianreview31

June 18, 2012  
Anonymous Diogenes said...

Whoops, should be "Sartarelli said that Camilleri partly"

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Brian Lindenmuth said...

Over Tumbled Graves by Jess Walter. Oh you didn't mean Washington state...:)

June 18, 2012  
Anonymous Mark P said...

Stumbled into this post while looking for some new crime fiction to read. Glad I did, so thanks for all the ideas, folks. I do wonder, too, whether sales of politically-oriented crime fiction take a leap in an election year. Or maybe a nosedive if everyone's sick of those fine folks in DC...

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Diogenes, thanks for that article. I found the comments about Hammett and Chandler interesting, as well as the connection with Sciascia.

I had not known that Montalbano had Sciascia as an ancestor in addition to Manuel Vazquez Montalban.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Brian, I've been looking for a good Washington crime novel, but only if it's connected to Wenatchee or Walla Walla.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, Mark. Politically oriented crime fiction could make for a pleasant escape, especially if it has a satirical edge, as Washington novels seem often to do.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Margaret Truman wrote a whole series of Washington mystery novels, but they aren't very good. Your mileage may vary.

There seems to be a sub-genre of thrillers about Presidents and/or their children being kidnapped.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Washington is such a dreary company town that its hard to get excited about it. Gore Vidal's Lincoln is the best novel I've read set in DC.

The worst is Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol but charitably another way of looking at it is as an oblique comic masterpiece.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister: Margaret Truman had the lineage to write about Washington. Maybe she lacked the chops.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, that's a delicious description of Washington. For what it's worth, all the interesting characters in Cast a Yellow Shadow are outsiders, and the only politician in the book is the drunken representative I cite in the excerpt, and I think that's his only appearance in the book.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Oh great--and this is where my nephew has ended up going to college. I hope he ends up with a better opinion of the place than this.

June 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Think of the great contacts he'll be able to make!

June 18, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

only if it's connected to Wenatchee or Walla Walla

What about Whatcom or Whidbey Island? Mystery novelist Elizabeth George (not my cuppa) lives on Whidbey. Or West Sound? It's west of Eastsound on Orcas Island. Or Waiilatpu? It's west of Walla Walla.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll wait for Waiilatpu Noir!

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

As to contacts, maybe, but he might be too good a guy for all that.

I know...I'm an aunt.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have no idea what Washington would be like for a college student. I don't even know where the campuses are.

But I think that between Georgetown and Adams-Morgan, he'd probably find some good places to hang out. But maybe an aunt doesn't want to think about that, either.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

I think it was okay. He did mention that he felt the difference between the East and West Coast, but I'm not sure what the details were.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He had traveled a long way. Is he just starting college? And is he from your part of California? In Washington, they have big monuments. In your part of the country, they have big trees. Neither does things on a small scale.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

He's finished his freshman year at American University. I was impressed that he decided to go that far rather than opting for San Luis Obispo, but I haven't heard his end of year report yet. He is the kind of guy who would go and sit at foreign students tables and ask them about their countries,which he actually knew something about, so I think he probably made the right choice.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He'll go far. I'm impressed. I wonder what his first assignment will be when he joins the Foreign Service.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Seana Graham said...

I'm just hoping he won't become a spy, but I may have already planted the idea in his head.

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Better be careful. Never know who's re

June 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gordon and Patti: : Pelecanos talks about his role as a chronicler of Washington in this interview, especially just past the fifteen-minute mark.

June 21, 2012  

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