A long-distance call from a Texas city on his birthday gives Benjamin Dill the news that his sister-it's her birthday, too, they were born exactly ten years apart-has died in a car bomb explosion. It's the chief of police calling-Felicity Dill worked for him; she was a homicide detective. Dill is there that night, the beginning of his dogged search for her killer. What he finds is no surprise to him, because Benjamin Dill is never surprised at what awful things people will do-but it's a real surprise to the reader. As Newsday said when the novel was first published, "One sure thing about Ross Thomas's novels: A reader won't get bored waiting for the action to start."
- Edgar Awards (Edgar Allan Poe Awards)
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St. Martin's Griffin
December 31, 1983
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Excerpt from Briarpatch by Ross Thomas
Three or four times over the years, I got to hear Ross Thomas tell how he got started in the writing game. It was a pretty good story all by itself, but the best part about it for me was watching the faces of the wannabes in the audience.
Ross would explain that he'd been at loose ends after a job ended -- maybe he'd just finished running a political campaign for a friend in Jamestown, North Dakota, or maybe he had recently returned from Africa - - and he'd decided to try his hand at a novel. So he sat down and wrote one, and after a month or two he was done. It occurred to him that it might be nice to have it published, but he wasn't sure how to proceed. So he called up a knowledgeable friend.
"I've written a book," he said, "and wondered what I ought to do next."
"Have a drink," the friend suggested. "Take an aspirin. Lie down, put your feet up."
"I thought I'd try to have it published," Ross told him.
"It has to be typewritten. And double-spaced."
It already was, Ross said. Whereupon, he told his listeners, the fellow told him how to proceed. He was to get some brown wrapping paper, wrap the manuscript neatly in it, and send it to a particular editor at a particular publishing house.
So he did.
And, two weeks later, there was a letter in his mailbox, from the editor to whom he'd sent the manuscript in its plain brown wrapper. "He said they would like to publish my novel," Ross reported, "and that they would be sending a contract."
No wannabe wants to hear a story like that. If you want to win the hearts and minds of struggling writers, you're better advised to tell them of your own struggles -- the failures and false starts, the endless parade of rejections, the paralyzing bouts with writer's block and alcoholism and the heartbreak of psoriasis. Finally, against long odds, after enduring and somehow surviving more perils than Pauline and more tsuris than Job, finally the writer prevails, the book is published, and can't you hear the violins?
Well, tough. Ross told it as it happened, and he could have been a lot harder on them. He could have gone on to say that the manuscript in question was published as The Cold War Swap, that it was widely praised and won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best first novel of the year, and that it launched a career that brought him no end of awards, an army of fiercely loyal readers, and a whole shelf of books with his name on them, in none of which one will ever encounter an ill-chosen word, an infelicitous phrase, or a clunky sentence.
Because Ross was far too modest to say any of that, some of those wannabes shook their heads and told themselves how lucky he'd been. Yeah, right. The way Ted Williams was lucky at baseball, or Nijinsky at ballet. Lucky bastards, the lot of them.
When Ross died, many years sooner than anyone would have wished, one of the things we told each other at his memorial service was that, while we wouldn't have the presence of this dear friend, wouldn't have a new book to look forward to each year, we'd still have the books he'd written.