The Fools in Town Are On Our Side commits my biggest pet peeve in crime fiction, that is that a character is raped and murdered, seemingly only with the intention of giving motivation to her husband, the main character. In that trope’s (cliche’s?) defense, that would provide explanation for a lot of different things and would shatter a person. Not so much as it shattered the dead character, though, which elision is why this trope bothers me so much. I love James Lee Burke’s prose style, but would like the books even more if the small sample size I’d read didn’t have such a high percentage of dead wives. I do appreciate that Thomas doesn’t use it to prop up a kill crazy rampage; rather it explains, to some extent, the protagonist, Lucifer Dye’s (yes, Lucifer Dye, Thomas has a gift for oddball names), cynicism and numb amorality. Using this trope dings the book for me, but it is, despite that, a sleazy masterwork of dirty politics.
This is my second Ross Thomas novel. I read The Fourth Durango a couple years ago. It was also about political intrigue, but less sleazy. I picked it up because Thomas sometimes gets compared favorably to my favorite crime writer, Elmore Leonard. I can see it. Thomas is much wordier, but he has a similar knack for dialog and for closing a scene/chapter on a strong line. I like his style. But reading this, which is usually mentioned as one of Thomas’s best, it plays much more like a much nastier version of Red Harvest by Hammett or the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing once the backstory is set.
Lucifer Dye was born in Montana and raised in a bordello in Shanghai, until he was driven out by WWII. He and his father figure spent time in a makeshift Japanese jail until they are traded back to the US. He’s recruited by a shady government agency called Section 2 and marries the boss's daughter (here he encounters the tragedy that is my main complaint with the book). Then he runs Section 2’s Hong Kong office until things go sideways and he ends up back in the states and cut loose from the agency in the late 60s. He is hired by a shady outfit to (further) corrupt a midsize Texas city so that it’s former leaders can retake control on a reform ticket. Dye delivers by playing various criminals and politicians against each other. Thomas doesn’t draw much of a distinction between the two.
The Fools In Town Are On Our Side won me over despite the reservation concerning the dead wife. It’s also very frank in it’s depiction of racism, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for being put off by that. But you believe these characters are that racist. It is a sleazy world. I felt gross afterwards. Despite reading as a believably late 60’s/early 70’s crime novel, its cynical (or clear-eyed depending on your perspective) take on politics seems relevant.* It really doesn’t hold back in its depiction of the amoral power struggle for the fate of the town, and leaves you wondering if you’re one of the titular fools. Sleazy amoral forces vying for power feels too relevant.
Highly Recommended (based on my scale, but I’m not sure to whom. It’s a bleak, sleazy read)
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 82/75
*There’s also a gangster in therapy a full thirty years before The Sopranos!