Ratf#%^&ing has been in the news a lot the last couple of years because of the Trump/Russia scandal. Outside influence affecting democratic elections is a time honored tradition, and few are more familiar with it than the United States, which has been practicing it for decades. It’s practically the CIA’s métier at this point. It’s a violent, imperialistic practice ripe for skewing.
Enter Ross Thomas. This is one of his earlier novels and apparently it’s influenced by his real life adventures in the African political trade. He sends his two main characters over to a fictional African nation on the west coast that’s prepping for its first free elections after the withdrawal of British colonial rule. The two men have a reputation for fixing political elections and are working for a British-based company hired out by Chief Akolo, one of the candidates.
In the hands of a lesser novel, this could get messy fast but Thomas makes it clear our characters are not heroes. They’re propping up the Chief because they’re getting paid, not because of any ideology. In order to help him win, they come up with a typical two-part strategy: the legit public campaign and the shady private campaign of sabotage (rat—-ing) against Akolo’s opponents. This is referred to as the “whipsaw.”
Thomas gets the rep of being the Elmore Leonard of politics and never is that more accurate than here. The dialogue is smooth. The white characters read like white collar criminals. In particular, Clint Shartelle stands out the most; a fast-talking southern huckster who is the brains behind the operation. Stick him with a ring of Florida family criminals and you could see him going toe-to-toe with a no nonsense sheriff. Instead, he’s used here to navigate the Akolo campaign through the rigors of a free election. The result is hilarious.
The book does have its shortcomings. Shartelle is a casual racist who has no problem throwing around the n-word in the company of white people. We’re meant to see his interactions as a critique of the American view of Africa but it feels thin and gratuitous. While I think the book is mostly sympathetic to Africa, Shartelle’s character is perhaps not the most sensitive way to view it. Also, the few female characters are poorly written, particularly the love interest of one of the other operators. This is an early Ross Thomas book and he would get better with writing for women but here, he clearly had no idea what he was doing.
I’m willing to deal with the shortcomings because I feel the book has good intent at the heart of it. It’s satirical more than anything. And the ending is one of the best I’ve read this year. This is a good place to start if you’re interested in Ross Thomas. Just be aware of the faults.