Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest is perhaps my favorite crime novel of all-time. It inspired one of my favorite movies of all time: Miller’s Crossing. It also inspired the Akira Kurosawa classic Yojimbo, which I have not seen, though I want to. Point being: I obviously have a thing for the specific genre where a political actor is caught in a corrupt city and plays both sides against each other for their own benefit.
I don’t know Ross Thomas’ inspirations for Fools in Town but I’d be stunned if Red Harvest wasn’t one of them. This feels like an updated version, only more expansive. Thomas gives his protagonist, appropriately named “Lucifer”, an extensive backstory that also seems to touch on Thomas’ experiences in Asia. Those parts don’t work as well as the rest of the book; I felt like Lucifer’s history could have been condensed to a few paragraphs. The flashback chapters that alternate through most of the first half of the book only serve to halt its momentum.
But once it gets to the fictional city where our hero does his dirty deeds, it becomes a lot of fun. One faction of power hungry mavens masquerading town reformers is combating another cabal of corrupt bureaucrats buttressed by organized crime. There are no real heroes here and Lucifer realizes that, so he kinda just does his own thing pitting both sides against each other. The result is the typical fun we expect from a Thomas novel: great dialogue, fun scenes.
There are some major drawbacks to this book. One in particular…
(trigger warning: rape. Skip the next paragraph if need be.)
is a terribly written, unnecessary rape scene. Most rape scenes are terribly written and unnecessary, as they focus on some perspective other than the (usual) female victim. This one is especially bad and not necessary to the plot at all. I’ve read about five or six Thomas books but I don’t recall anything so egregious regarding rape. Terrible and really pissed me off.
In addition to that, as I said above, the flashbacks don’t work. It’s a longer book than it needs to be and drags more than it should for its first half. Thomas tries to synthesize Lucifer’s back story with what’s happening at the present in the narrative and it doesn’t really work. There’s also the frequent use of the n-word, though it’s more understanding of racism than some of his other works.
Many consider this Thomas’ magnum opus. I still think it’s Briarpatch. It has too many shortcomings to be great but it is really darn good and worth a read.