A good, nasty Le Carresque plot of opportunism and betrayal within the intelligence service, a well-observed background of Berlin and Bonn, some violent surprises and a fine individual tone.--The New York Times on The Cold War Swap
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May 12, 2003
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Excerpt from The Cold War Swap by Ross Thomas
Ross was forty years old when he wrote his first novel, The Cold War Swap, in 1966. Coming from a career as a soldier, reporter, and political campaigner, he leapt onto the literary scene with that first attempt at fiction and won himself an Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Mystery.
The principal settings for Ross's first novel were two cities in which he had worked, Bonn and Berlin. The cities are portrayed vividly with a postwar noir style that sets a tone of quiet despair in which the characters will do almost anything to survive. And the beauty of Ross's characters in this dark world is that they are colorful and alive and they seldom plan ahead. Critics have compared Ross's work to that of Raymond Chandler, not in subject matter but in style. I've always thought of Ross as the American Eric Ambler by way of Elmore Leonard. Ross was the master of colorful, unpredictable characters, thieves, scoundrels, drunks, assassins, madmen, fools, bureaucrats, and confused and bewildered professionals.
In The Cold War Swap as in so many of his novels, it is sometimes difficult to tell if we are meant to take the characters seriously or if the author is leading us down a series of streets, alleys, and dark rooms with no idea himself of who or what will be around the next corner.
Is McCorkle, who sits in his shady bar in Bonn and drinks, broods, and smokes to generic excess, the comic side of Rick in Casablanca ? Is Maas, the fat, sweating villain, the comic side of Sidney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon? Is Padillo Zachary Scott's distorted mirror image in The Mask of Dimitrios?
The book is a nonstop tale of blunders by both sides of the Cold War, a constantly changing attempt by mistaken spies and agents to hatch schemes they never quite put together. Is this book a soft laugh at the Cold War novel? I like to think that it is.
Men stagger into hotel rooms and fall dead. Bullets slowly kill off most of the cast. The best character in the book, Cook, the rich alcoholic, leaves the stage with the reader feeling that Thomas has played a dark joke on us, removing the character most full of life when we need him most.
There are things in The Cold War Swap that would seem badly outdated in other hands. In fact, there are dozens of books with the same theme, the rescuing of scientists from behind the Iron Curtain. Most of them are forgotten not because of their subject matter but because their pages were not peopled by the memorable, colorful characters of a Ross Thomas.
A caricature in other hands became a vulnerable human in Ross's books. The two gay defectors in The Cold War Swap move from near clichý to sympathetic humanness. Waas, the vile fat opportunist, is given his best shot and gradually becomes a basically bad man whom we can truly understand.