@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
For extended periods over the past several decades, I’ve been reading mysteries by the carload. I thought that by now I’d be reasonably familiar with the best writers in the genre. Somehow, I missed Ross Thomas, who penned twenty-three crime novels between 1966 and 1994 and passed away in 1995. I came across The Fools in Town Are on Our Side in a list of someone’s idea of the 100 best mysteries of all time. I don’t know about many of the other 99, but this one surely belongs on that list.
Published in 1970, The Fools in Town relates a tall tale about municipal corruption set during Richard Nixon’s first term, while the Vietnam War spilled over into Laos and Cambodia. The title comes from Huckleberry Finn: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” According to an introduction to the Kindle edition I read, Thomas reputedly wrote his books from a standing start, without any sense of how they might end. That’s easy to believe about The Fools in Town. In fact, it’s easy enough to imagine that Thomas came across that passage in Huckleberry Finn and decided to write a novel to fit the title!
Lucifer C. Dye — one of several characters in the novel with Dickensian names — is a multilingual former American intelligence operative fired by his agency (not the CIA!) after causing an enormous clusterf**k in Singapore. Soon after he returns to the States he is offered a job for an enormous sum of money by a mysterious young man in a hotel room: Lucifer is to travel to a moderate-size Southern city which is already afflicted by outsized corruption — and corrupt the city even more, so that the good citizens of the town will vote in a reform slate and toss the bums out. Not exactly simple but logical, right? It is, except that Lucifer quickly discovers that the prominent citizens on the so-called reform slate are, if anything, even more corrupt than the bums now in charge.
While the action unfolds as Lucifer gets to work in earnest, his backstory is revealed in alternating chapters. We learn how it came about that he screwed up so badly in Singapore, and why he is so cynical about life that he’s willing to immerse himself in such a questionable enterprise. Improbable, but it all hangs together. The plotting in this novel is a wonder to behold — and so is the writing, especially the dialogue.
If you read crime novels and haven’t yet discovered Ross Thomas, treat yourself to The Fools in Town are On Our Side. It’s one of the most delicious send-ups of small-town politics I’ve ever come across.