A delightful Ross Thomas novel about con men, a $5 million bribe, and a rebellion in the Philippines
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Ross Thomas‘ inimitable thrillers were originally published between 1966 and 1994. (Ross died the following year.) More recently, most of his work has been brought out in new editions, each with an introduction by a prominent contemporary of his who wrote mysteries and thrillers, too. Introducing Out on the Rim, one of Thomas’ last novels, Donald E. Westlake comments “The dialogue zings, the story twists like a go-go dancer, and you often can’t tell the players even with the program.” Amen to that.
Published in 1987 and set a year earlier, Out on the Rim is a roller-coaster of a tale that moves from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, to Manila and Cebu City in the Philippines, to Hong Kong, and back to Washington, DC, for a typically ironic and very satisfying conclusion. The focus of attention is Booth Stallings, a “terrorism expert”—he holds a Ph.D. and wrote a book on the subject—but Thomas shifts the point of view from Stallings to each of a number of other intriguing characters whose principal occupation seems to be double-crossing each other.
There’s Artie Wu, the brilliant and corpulent “Pretender to the Chinese Imperial Throne.” (He claims to be the illegitimate son of the illegitimate son of Pu Yi, the Last Emperor.) Wu’s partner in crime is Quincy Durant, a sociopath who works cons with him. Others frequently refer to him as “that f***ing Durant.” Maurice Overby, “House-sitter to the Stars,” known to most as Otherguy Overby (the other guy always did it), is also a con man. He always works at an angle about 45 degrees off course from everyone else. Georgia Blue, a cashiered former Secret Service agent, may not be licensed to kill, but it’s clear she is fully capable of doing it. Alejandro (Al) Espiritu, who fought the Japanese with Stallings, is now the leader of a rebel movement in the south of the Philippines. Also appearing are Al’s wife and sister, assorted CIA agents, a Philippine homicide detective, and an Australian expatriate in Manila who is selling secrets to so many governments that he can’t keep them all straight. As Donald Westlake says, “you often can’t tell the players even with the program.”
Shortly after his 60th birthday, Booth Stallings is recruited to return to the Philippines after more than 40 years to reconnect with Al Espiritu. His assignment is to persuade the rebel leader to accept a $5 million bribe to leave the islands for exile in Hong Kong. Stallings will be paid a fee of $500,000 for the job (about a million dollars in 2017). To help carry out this dangerous assignment, he turns to Otherguy Overby, who connects him with Wu and Durant. Stallings plans to fly to Manila with the other three men, but then the man who recruited him insists that his bodyguard, Georgia Blue, join the team. Immediately after their arrival in the Philippines, the trouble starts—and it doesn’t let up until the very end of this delightfully convoluted story.