Sunday, November 11, 2018

39. Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas

Ross Thomas has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the better thriller/espionage/crime writers of the second half of the twenthieth century, though that reputation is probably better held among fans of the genre than the broader book-reading public.  The Porkchoppers is one of my favourite books.  Yet once again, I am somewhat underwhelmed by one of his books, especially the ones that are part of a series with a regular cast of protagonists.

Cast a Yellow Shadow is a McCorkle and Padillo adventure. They are two cold war era men who don't really want to do what they do but have to because they are so good at it.  McCorkle is the narrator and ostensibly the less engaged of the two (and the less skilled and experienced, though he always handles himself well).  In this book, Padillo turns up unconscious after a knife fight on the Baltimore docks.  He had presumably died in the last book whose events took place two years earlier.  McCorkle gets a call from some of his contacts in the DC African-American criminal establishment, specifically one bookie and gangster Hardman (pronounced Hard-Man).  McCorkle is happy to see his partner alive, but his pleasure is short-lived as they discover that McCorkle's wife has been kidnapped. The ransom:  Padillo must do a job for these kidnappers.

The kidnappers are agents from a ficitonal south African country beween Rhodesia and South Africa.  They are from the white minority government who wants to gain independence from Britain while not relinquishing their power to the black majority (this book was written in 1967).  Their plan is to get Padillo to assassinate their Prime Minister who is visiting America and make it seem like it was done by an American black radical group.  They believe this will turn world opinion in their favour.  The Prime Minister himself is behind the conspiracy as he has stomach cancer and only a few months to live anyways.  They are white supremacist fanatics who are fairly realistically portrayed despite the loopiness of their plan.

It's kind of a cool set up and the cast of characters is interesting, especially the black gangsters who help McCorkle and Padillo with their counterplay.  The problem is that the tone is all a bit too glib and everything feels slightly superficial. The premise was also a bit weak, as the bad guys though violent and desperate are basically amateurs compared to McCorkle and Padillo and completely out of their home territory.  Finally, there was a lack of emotional payoff in the end.

It is a beautiful paperback that I found in in Vancouver in one of those great free book boxes that are popping up all over and I feel like I need to keep it for archival purposes even though it's not one of my favourite reads. 

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