Saturday, December 15, 2012

67. Chinaman's Chance by Ross Thomas

First of all, I may be the proud owner of the worst cover of Chinaman's Chance (of course, Existential Ennui has the best one).  I couldn't find an image anywhere on the internet, so I will assume for now that among us paperback book hunters, I'm the only one who currently has this trophy.  I get into some geekiness with the cover below that I think those who have read the book may appreciate.

Chinaman's Chance is considered one of Ross Thomas' best.  Once again, we get a slowly unravelling storyline which doesn't reveal itself until at least halfway through the book.  In this case, two sharp dudes, Artie Wu and Quincy Durant, are renting a beach house in Malibu.  Through a seeming accident, they make aquaintances with Piers Randall, an ex-software tycoon with a problem.  He hires them to try and track down his missing sister-in-law, who was having an affair with a murdered senator from Pelican Bay, a seedy seaside town just under LA ("a long and grimy finger that poked itself into the backside of Los Angeles" as Thomas puts it).  Things get even more complicated and interesting from there.  Ultimately, the book is about Pelican Bay and how big organized crime moves into a dying town to take it over, with some help from deeply corrupt political power at the national level.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner with the usual cast of rich characters.  The town of Pelican Bay is amazingly well-depicted and there are a couple of really great action moments.  The plot is fairly complex, going really big picture with the backstory, but I never got lost (and I'm reading at a very slow pace these days, like a chapter a night, so that's good).  Thomas is like a bartender that makes a delicious mixed drink of espionage and crime and Chinaman's Chance is like a great night at his bar.

[the rest of this review is more aimed at people who have already read the book.  There aren't any major spoilers, but several references I don't bother to explain.]

This is my fourth Ross Thomas book and I think I definitely have an understanding of his style, for better and for worse.  I say for better, because he is a master of many important writing skills: characterization, dialogue, spatial description and world-building (especially of towns and cities, but he also is able to create wonderful little social ecologies i a few pages, like a rundown mixed residential and commercial neighbourhood with all its key players and locations).  I say worse, because he has two tendencies that rub me slightly the wrong way.  They are stylistic choices and I am probably alone in not liking them.  Indeed, it is quite possible that fans of his love them.  The first is that I feel like he creates principal characters that are quirky for quirky's sake and both he and them are a little too proud of it.  Artie Wu is a great case in point. The guy is a con artist and an ass-kicker, an orphan who may or may not be in line for the throne of China.  Okay, fine, that's kind of cool and fun.  But he also has a super-beautiful Scottish wife and two sets of twins!  It's all a bit much and kind of unrealistic given his profession.  The second thing is the sexuality in his books is pretty silly and again to this reader jarringly unrealistic.  The super-rich dude who hires Wu and Durant has a super-beautiful actress/singer wife who is a nymphomaniac of the kind you only found in Penthouse letters.  She also has a super-hot sister.  Both throw themselves at Quincy Durant whose psychological impotence also never happened in the history of science.  Ross Thomas would be the worst gynecologist ever.  I get that these books are escapist fantasies, so it is perhaps pedantic of me to harp on about realism.  But I just find he goes a little too far in some cases with the quirkiness and the fantasy sex objects.

I think that's why I still think the Porkchoppers is so far his masterpiece.  It's a much darker book, so the quirkiness is tamped down.  You get the wide range of characters and their rich backgrounds, but everybody seems quite realistic.  For those of you who have read many more of his books, which ones are closer to the Porkchoppers?  Don't get me wrong, I am going to continue reading his books and look forward to the continunation of the Wu and Durant saga.   But I think I know what to expect now and that will make me more discerning.

Can you name all the characters?

Now onto the cover.  What a doozy!  This cover is so Dallas.  It makes me think it will be one of those mainstream epic novels that "adults" read in the 70s with the embossed covers.  Clearly, it targetted that audience.  I wonder how well it fared.  Though quite tacky (  "Oh why oh why can't I get it up?" Quincy Durant thinks, "even when a super-hot movie star strips and masturbates in front of me.), I do appreciate that a real effort was made to capture much that is actually in the book.  A bunch of the characters are there.  The beach house and Pelican Bay are shown.  The only real innacuracy is that Tony Egg is bald and it looks like instead of making Icky Norris black, they just put him in the shadow (some editor was probably like "we've already got a chinese on the cover, if we put a black guy on the back, people will be turned off.").  It's hard to see with my scan, but on the spine are two patrol cops in helmets, which I think are supposed to be Sheriff Ploughman and Lt. Lake, which is totally wrong (they are detectives and never in uniform in the book).  Finally, the blowing up vehicle does not look like a motor home.  No credit is given for the cover design.

Here, for your pleasure, is the cover annotated with all the characters:


Brian Busby said...

I've not read the book, but appreciate the geekiness gotten into just the same. Good fun and an invaluable contribution to Thomas scholarship.

RJR said...

Very odd. I think Thomas' masterpiece is THE FOOLS IN TOWN ARE ON OUR SIDE. I used to play poker with Ross, and the only book of his I COULD NOT finish was THE PORKCHOPPERS.


OlmanFeelyus said...

How was his poker game, RJR? Part of my love for the Porkchoppers is that I am particularly interested in stories that involve jobs and institutions, showing all the little mechanisms and details in those worlds. Porkchoppers does such a great job of showing the top level of a huge union in the '70s. But it is less of an adventure than Thomas' other books. It feels more pure and realistic to me.

Will Errickson said...

Love, love, love that cover! Any artist credited for it?

OlmanFeelyus said...

Hi Will, I'll see if I can find out.