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THE QUIET KILLER : After 21 Highly Regarded Novels, Malibu's Ross Thomas Is Poised to Become the Next King of Crime

November 08, 1987|JOSEPH DALTON | Joseph Dalton is a New York writer.

"I can't believe this," Georgia Blue said.... "Do-gooders don't steal five million dollars. Thieves do. Grifters like us, Otherguy. If those two want romance, fine. I'll take cash."

"What's so wrong with doing a little good while we're at it?" Overby asked.

Georgia Blue sighed. "Because there's never any money in it." --"Out on the Rim," by Ross Thomas

In Malibu, Ross Thomas smiles--which he does infrequently but well, an even white smile that makes you want to smile back and put your hand on your wallet, if not in that particular order. He takes another quick slash of Perrier water and returns to a subject he's studied carefully, which is chicanery in high places. "Oliver North was the patsy--no, that's not the right word: the mark . Now here comes Gen. Secord and Albert Hakim, and the mark is saying, 'You handle the money.' Now when the mark is telling you to handle the money, you've found the mother lode, the Seven Cities of Cibola.

"When I was with the union, well, any time you have a membership of say, a million, you'll find guys flying in to sell you something that you just desperately need--the guys that fly in with the deal." Another hesitant smile to puncture the moment, and Thomas says, with Oz-like serenity, "Those guys are known as . . . dealmakers. That's the only way it makes sense--Ollie North had always had his ideology, and he was the mark. He's the prime current example of American naivete."

A final sad smile, full of sorrow for the thievery but bemused at how slick it went, and the thought occurs that Thomas might have made a good con man. Instead, he went into politics--speechwriting and organizing, the nuts and bolts of getting elected--and was at least fair at it. Now he writes novel about the deals that go down at the fringes of power, and he's very, very good at that. "In the new book, what I was writing about was greed," he says, shaking his head and smiling his smile, with wonder in his voice. "And how it affects everyone-- everyone ."

The new book is "Out on the Rim"--the Pacific Rim, of course, and it's about the Philippines in the days after Cory Aquino took over. But really it's about the Ross Thomas territory, out there on the frayed edges of American power, where greed and soft money intersect, and one man's patriot is another man's Ollie. An extensively plotted novel, it follows five characters on their way to deliver $5 million to a New People's Army commander in the jungle. Since $5 million divides nicely by five, there are a few neat twists along the way. But over 21 years, and 22 books, Thomas has always had his admirers. The difference is that now a few have become believers.

"Look at this," says Otto Penzler in his New York office. Penzler runs the Mysterious Press, Thomas' new publisher, and the office could have come out of one of the lesser London clubs at the turn of the century--two comfortable chairs, a nice sofa, 12-foot bookcases lining the walls. He's waving a copy of "Out on the Rim": "That's foil on the cover--see how it jumps out at you? Know what that costs? Seventeen thousand dollars--that's somebody's salary for a year. We're doing this right--Ross deserves it."

The early rumor in New York publishing circles was that Thomas had left Simon & Schuster, for a $750,000, two-book deal with the Mysterious Press. Thomas won't talk money, and Penzler says only that it was a three-book deal, for more. But he is spending $100,000 on the publicity campaign, and the Mysterious Press is hoping to sell about 80,000 books, which would move "Out on the Rim" nicely about halfway up the bestseller lists. The New York word for this is breakout , as in this is Ross Thomas' breakout book.

So the early word, in addition to breakout, is good. The Book-of-the-Month Club made "Out on the Rim" a featured alternate for November, and that's not to be underestimated. For one thing, the Book-of-the-Month Club prints pictures of your book in its ads and people see it there long after they've forgotten reviews and the initial advertising and say, well, it must be good. For another, the Book-of-the-Month Club has about 1.6 million members, and a fair number of them will buy the book, somewhere between 15,000 and 60,000 for a featured alternate. That's a lot of books, and Thomas has his fans there, too.

"It's a fantastic book," says Al Silverman, the club's chairman and CEO. "How many has he written, 16 or 17? Twenty-two? I'm surprised he's not better known. We don't do this very often, but we have done it, and I suppose the best recent example is Elmore Leonard."

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