Authors: Ross Thomas
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery
The Cold War Swap
Cast a Yellow Shadow
The Seersucker Whipsaw
The Singapore Wink
The Fools in Town Are on Our Side
The Backup Men
If You Can’t Be Good
The Money Harvest
The Eighth Dwarf
The Mordida Man
Out on the Rim
The Fourth Durango
THOMAS DUNNE BOOKS.
An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
TWILIGHT AT MAC’S PLACE
. Copyright © 1990 by Ross E. Thomas, Inc. Introduction © 2003 by T. Jefferson Parker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
First published by Mysterious Press in November 1990
First St. Martin’s Minotaur Edition: December 2003
by T. Jefferson Parker
Twilight at Mac’s Place
is arguably Ross Thomas at his best, and certainly Ross Thomas at his most elegant and complex.
The novel was published in 1990 but the story takes place two years earlier, at the close of the Cold War. An era is coming to an end. The Berlin Wall is about to fall. A former CIA Director is about to become President. The third paragraph sets the date and Thomas’s indelible tone:
Steadfast Haynes was fifty-seven when he died at 11:32
on January 19, the night before the inauguration of the nation’s forty-first President…. He died quietly, even discreetly, much as he had lived, and the thirty-three-year-old woman who lay next to him when he died…knew just whom to call and what to do.
The close of the eighties seems a particularly rich timescape for one of Thomas’s unmistakable thrillers. The Republic had felt battered by hostile governments abroad—Iran, Libya, and Nicaragua come to mind. Rather than confront them directly, the Reagan-North-Secord alliance had tried to subvert them without the approval or even knowledge of the American people.
The televised Congressional hearing into the Iran-Contra scandal was a spectacle of legerdemain by master politicians. You couldn’t turn the volume
high enough to hear any truth. More than once, while reading
Twilight at Mac’s Place,
I pictured Thomas sitting in front of his TV, watching the testimony of Oliver North with a gigantic smile on his face.
From this background of secrecy and misdirection, Thomas asks, in
Twilight at Mac’s Place,
a million-dollar what-if. What if one of these covert players had
written a book about it
? To what lengths would his bosses go to make sure it never saw the light of day? That is the seed. What better soil for Ross Thomas to grow one of his brilliant hybrids of thriller, murder mystery, and political amorality tale?
It’s easy to lose yourself in trying to identify the specific agencies, bureaus, committees, news organizations, and scoundrels that populate this novel. But it’s even easier—and much more fun—to revel in Thomas’s dead-on characters and the wily dialogue upon which these characters are built. As with any good novelist, Thomas never falls for personification. Nobody stands for anything. That would be too simple. Each character is a bundle of enigmas, and we don’t learn which is the alpha-enigma until the end. Even their names are delicious: Tinker Burns and Isabelle Gelinet and Gilbert Undean and Michael Padillo and Hamilton Keyes and Cyril McCorkle and Detective-Sergeant Darius Pouncy. (McCorkle and Padillo appeared in Thomas’s first novel,
The Cold War Swap
, in 1966.)
Thomas was a terrific storyteller and a skilled wordsmith. His language pops with the unexpected and is a joy to read. An example:
[He] had a tree-trunk neck [and] one of those reflexive all-purpose smiles that show too much gum and are used to express pleasure, rage, pain, hope, fear, mirth, approval and sometimes nothing at all.
Tinker Burns had seen such smiles in the Legion and knew that they often belonged to nut cases. He remembered two particular Legionnaires, both borderline sociopaths, who had died two days apart in terrible agony, each of them gut-shot, their all-purpose smiles firmly in place.
Beyond the dizzying spiral of story, the rich characters, and the cocked and loaded language there isn’t much to say except thank you to St. Martin’s Press for reissuing Ross Thomas.
I think the years have been kind to
Twilight at Mac’s Place.
Thomas would live to write only two more novels. He died in 1995. Nice to know that such entertaining and topical writing can stand on its own two feet and get around so nimbly after fourteen years. Fourteen more and fourteen more? Sure.
Shortly after the death of the failed Quaker, Steadfast Haynes, the Central Intelligence
Agency received a telephoned blackmail threat that was so carefully veiled and politely murmured it could have been misinterpreted as the work of some harmless crank.
But it wasn’t misinterpreted. And it was solely because of this vague threat to reveal what Haynes had really done while serving as an occasional agency hire in Africa, the Middle East, Central America and Southeast Asia that the Department of Defense, after much grumbling, gave in to CIA pressure and ordered the Army to bury him at Arlington National Cemetery with standard military honors.
Steadfast Haynes was fifty-seven when he died at 11:32
. on January 19, the night before the inauguration of the nation’s forty-first President. He died in bed on the fourth floor of the Hay-Adams Hotel in a $185-a-night room that commanded a fine view of the White House. He died quietly, even discreetly, much as he had lived, and the thirty-three-year-old woman who lay next to him when he died was a former Agence France-Presse correspondent and old friend who knew just whom to call and what to do.
Her first call was to Paris and lasted a little more than four minutes. Her second call was to the front desk to notify the hotel that Haynes was dead. Her third call was to the robbery and homicide division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
After this third call was finally transferred to Sergeant Virgil Stroud, she identified herself and, speaking in tones both formal and slightly accented, asked for Detective Granville Haynes in order to inform him of his father’s death.
“That’s not bad,” Sergeant Stroud said.
“I mean we had one guy call yesterday, maybe the day before, that had to talk to Granny because he was Granny’s identical twin and dying of leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant.”
After a moment of hesitation, she said, “There is no twin brother.”
“Yeah. I know. But you’d be surprised what people will say to get to him.” This time it was Sergeant Stroud who hesitated. “Or maybe you wouldn’t. Be surprised.”
“Something’s happened to him—is that it?”
“That’s it all right. He won the lottery three weeks ago and quit us the next day.”
“I still need his home telephone number.”
Sergeant Stroud used a chuckle to say good-bye and end the call.
When the Los Angeles Police Department was robbed by fortune of Granville Haynes’s services, it was also robbed of its only homicide detective with a master’s degree in Old French from the University of Virginia, where he had written his thesis on the three major humanistic aspects of Rabelais’s
Gargantua and Pantagruel.
After making detective, Haynes frequently had been assigned to the occasional rich folks homicides in Bel Air, Brentwood and even as far west as Pacific Palisades, where, it was felt, the usually wealthy and often influential relatives of the victims would be reassured by his competent demeanor and soothed by his faultless manners, which some mistook for diffidence.
Haynes had spent an odd childhood on the French and Italian Rivieras among the very rich and, consequently, was not only knowledgeable but also chary of their curious folkways and taboos. This knowledge, effortlessly acquired as a child, later enabled him to move among them as one of the nearly anointed—almost as if once long ago they had given him a temporary guest membership that nobody had ever remembered to cancel.
Haynes had acquired his false passport into the land of the rich without any encouragement—or discouragement, for that matter—from his father, who had made it a rule never to give his son unasked-for advice, except once, back in 1974, when Steadfast Haynes, then forty-three, had delivered a brief homily in Washington. The occasion had been his son’s eighteenth birthday and the homily had dealt with the basic economic benefits of inflation.
“Inflation,” the older Haynes had said, “means that if you borrow ten bucks today, you just might be able to pay it back next year or the year after that with ten quarters, ten dimes or even ten nickels.”
The homicide detective and three other Californians (a journeyman pool cleaner in Santa Barbara, a dentist in Modesto and a waitress in Eureka) had hit the state Lotto for a little more than $1 million each with six numbers, 3 11 13 19 32 45, that had been picked for Haynes by a computer. The gross amount of each check he and the other three winners would receive for the next twenty years was approximately $58,000.
But once all taxes were withheld, the net came to $39,979, which sum, Haynes quickly decided, was enough to let him abandon one of his two careers. So, after almost ten years on the force, seven of them in homicide, he had abandoned police work and turned instead to full-time acting.
It was nearly 4
. in Washington and 1
. in Los Angeles before the former Agence France-Presse correspondent pried Haynes’s new and unlisted telephone number out of a reluctant GTE with lies, threats, tears and, finally, help from the French consulate. After Haynes answered his ringing phone with a sleepy but polite hello, the former correspondent used a carefully thought out twenty-three-word paragraph to identify herself and tell him his father was dead.
The brief silence that followed was ended by Haynes with a series of questions of no more than five or six words each that asked about cause, time and place of death. Once satisfied that he had most of the pertinent information, another silence began. Haynes also ended this one when he asked whether his father had ever said anything to her about wanting a particular kind of funeral.
She replied that although Steadfast Haynes had never once talked to her about dying, she thought it might be possible to have him buried in Arlington National Cemetery with some form of military ceremony. Haynes said he thought his father would have appreciated the irony of that, if not the occasion. There was yet another silence, longer this time, and during it Haynes thought he could sense the woman’s long-distance smile just before she offered, providing he approved, to arrange the interment at Arlington.
After he gave his approval they ended the call and Haynes went over to the cracked-leather armchair by the living room window of his one-bedroom apartment in Ocean Park. He sat in the chair, staring out in the direction of the Pacific Ocean, his view blocked by the pale yellow monster house across the street that had been built on speculation six months ago but still hadn’t sold because of its exorbitant price.
As he sat, trying to summon up images of the near stranger who had been his father, Haynes found himself murmuring the lines he would deliver later that day during the filming of a one-hour television cop show in Burbank. He was to play Cal, a very minor thug, who died early on, and whose only lines were “Forget it!” and “I’m outta here!”
The son of Steadfast Haynes continued to sit in the cracked-leather chair, staring out at the moonlit yellow house, running blurred images of his father through his mind and chanting the two lines aloud. They were, he discovered, almost as good as a mantra and far more comforting than prayer.
An autopsy revealed the cause of Steadfast Haynes’s death to have been a massive cerebral hemorrhage. It also revealed a slightly fatty liver and a mild case of emphysema, neither of which surprised the son, who knew that his father, from fifteen on, had smoked at least a package of cigarettes a day and drunk as much alcohol as he wished for nearly as long.
After flying into Washington, Haynes soon learned, again with no surprise, that there were only a dozen or so persons in the capital and its metastasizing suburbs who, unless pressed, would even admit to having known the late Steadfast Haynes. Nor did most of them really care that he was dead—although there were two former U.S. government super-grades who might have paid their respects, except both were under Federal indictment and far too worried about their own fates to mourn for anyone else.
Still, there was one man at the Central Intelligence Agency who remembered Steadfast Haynes with a measure of admiration, if not affection, from their days together in Laos. Now sixty-seven years old, the man had retired two years ago as the agency’s senior Burma analyst. Of necessity, he temporarily had been called back from retirement after the recent political upheaval in Burma—soon to be renamed Myanmar—and after, as he put it, “They found out they didn’t have anyone who really knew fuck all about the place.”
The aging analyst, correctly suspecting he would either be asked or ordered to go, had volunteered to sacrifice a lunch hour and attend the Arlington ceremony as the agency’s unofficial observer, if not mourner.
The only true mourners at the grave of Steadfast Haynes were his son, the woman who once had been an Agence France-Presse correspondent, and Tinker Burns, the sixty-six-year-old ex-French Foreign Legionnaire, who had flown in from Paris on the Concorde.