Ross Thomas is considered to be at the very top of American thriller writers by many of his fellow authors as well as by his many readers. He won two Edgar Allan Poe Awards, one for Best First Novel, The Cold War Swap, and another for Best Novel, Briarpatch. He died in 1995, and since then all but one of his twenty-odd books have gone out of print. This shouldn't happen with the man who has been called "America's best storyteller" by the The New York Times Book Review and countless authors. Minotaur is delighted to remedy this shameful situation! Starting with two of Thomas's well-loved titles, Out on the Rim, which features the author's quirky and delightful pair of detectives, Wu and Durant, and the Edgar-winner, Briarpatch, with Dill as the sleuth searching for the killer of his sister, Minotaur is determined to bring readers the thrillers they deserve. And once we have rewhetted the appetite for this master writer's work, we are ready to answer the cries of "More! More!" until almost the entire canon is again in the hands of everyone who appreciates a highly suspenseful story spiced with dry humor, jump-off-the-page characters, and the prose of a master.
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January 22, 2003
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Excerpt from Out on the Rim by Ross Thomas
I'm trying to figure out how to tell the story I want to tell here. It necessarily contains a short blunt Anglo-Saxon word which, in many contexts, I have no trouble employing, but which, in the present context, seems to me to present the wrong tone, to be off-key. So I tell you what; when we reach any point, in dialogue or wherever, that the word I have in mind would be deployed, I'll use the word "magruder" instead. Okay?
I considered Ross Thomas a friend, to the extent that two people can be friends who live three thousand miles apart and never belonged to the same Moose lodge. Another mutual friend of ours, Gary Salt, my long-time agent, lived on the Left Coast like Ross and probably saw him more often.
At one point in his speckled career (all of us who put bread on the table by spinning words from straw have speckled careers), Ross was rewriting the screenplay of Hammett, from the Joe Gores novel, for Francis Coppola, as a result of which he asked Gary a favor. He had added a character, he explained, a reporter that Hammett would meet in a bar, who would give Hammett a piece of information that would later turn out to be vital. The reporter would only be in the one scene, but the audience should be able to remember him whenever that vital fact emerged, so would Gary mind if Ross called the character "Gary Salt," that being an easy and a memorable name?
Gary said he wouldn't mind at all, in fact he'd be honored. And then he added these fateful words: "Just remember, some day my mother's going to see that movie. So I don't care who the character is, just so he doesn't magruder children and animals."
"No no," Ross said. "He's just a reporter Hammett meets for one scene in a bar."
Now, here's what Gary didn't know, or didn't fully appreciate. Ross was a contrarian. He couldn't help himself; if told he couldn't do something, he would not rest until he'd done it. A Monsignor Knox, back in the twenties, had compiled a list of subjects that could not be used in detective novels: dwarfs, Chinamen, etc. Ross saw that list somewhere, and immediately set out to write a detective novel about every one of those taboos: The Eighth Dwarf, Chinaman's Chance, etc.
So now watch what happens. Screenplays aren't written, they're rewritten. Draft after draft goes by, and the reporter in the bar becomes a photographer, the photographer becomes a pornographer, then the pornographer becomes the head of a pornography ring and the principle villain in the story, and by the time the film was made "Gary Salt" was the most evil guy in the movie and, yes, he did magruder children and animals. Gary took it philosophically, understanding by then that Ross couldn't help it. I don't know if Gary's mother ever saw the movie; hope not.
This characteristic, potentially troublesome in other areas, served Ross well in his writing career. His novels are so good -- and they are -- because he absolutely refuses to be ordinary. He won't follow the plot guidelines, he won't make tidy action-figure characters. When he comes to a fork in the road, he takes a different road.