The political strategists at the Pen & Pencil Club here in Philadelphia are almost as bad as the cigar smokers and the lawyers, but Thomas' operatives, plotting a campaign for the first election in the newly independent fictional African nation of Albertia, make the profession sound like delightful fun without being more cynical than thou:
"I'm going to call him Chief," Shartelle said firmly. "It’s the first time I’ve ever worked for anybody who was a real chief and I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to address him by his rightful title.”The book is also full of amusing social observations about its time (it appeared in 1967):
“English lit—right?”How good a writer was Thomas? He won two Edgar Awards, but I'm two-thirds of the way through the novel, no crime has been committed, and the book still works as highly entertaining political comedy.
“As close to a classical education as Minnesota got that year. It was an experiment. A little Latin, and less Greek. It was to produce the well-rounded man. I think they abandoned it in favor of something called communications shortly after I was graduated.”
With an American presidential election campaign on, the book will make especially entertaining reading. (Of course, there's almost always an American presidential campaign on.)
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
“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