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Ross Thomas; Award-Winning Mystery Writer

December 19, 1995|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ross Thomas, award-winning mystery writer who chronicled crime in high places in two dozen novels praised for lucid plotting, realistic characters and witty dialogue, died Monday. He was 69.

Thomas, who had lived in Malibu for the past 20 years, died of cancer at St. John's Medical Center in Santa Monica, said his wife, Rosalie.

With books always characterized as steady sellers, though never bestsellers, Thomas was highly regarded by readers, critics and peers. He won the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America twice--in 1967 for his first novel, "The Cold War Swap," and in 1985 for "Briarpatch."

"Anyone reading a Ross Thomas thriller for the first time is in imminent danger of addiction: One taste is never enough," critic David Ansen wrote for The Times in 1990. "His books ought to come with a health warning: Prolonged exposure to this page-turning prose can lead to nervousness, loss of sleep and antisocial behavior."

What gave Thomas' political thrillers authority, Ansen wrote, "and makes his books so damn much fun to read is Thomas' insider's familiarity with the corridors of power."

Thomas' first novel appeared after the author studied those corridors through an eclectic career. Born in Oklahoma City and educated at the University of Oklahoma, Thomas served in the Army in the Philippines as World War II ended. He was a newspaper sports reporter, public relations director for the National Farmers Union, a foreign correspondent in Bonn, an account executive in London, a campaign manager in Nigeria and a political consultant in Washington, D.C.

"If I have a hobby, it's politics--as an observer and not as a participant anymore," Thomas told The Times in 1981. "I do use the fact that I've been in the back rooms where the deals are being cut. If there is a trace of cynicism in my books, it's only based on reality."

Thomas described his books as adventure stories and his heroes as "39 with a past." His favorite among his own books, his wife said, was always "the last one."

What was often considered Thomas' best book, "Chinaman's Chance," published in 1978, dwelt on corruption in Southern California. Other books were set in Libya, Africa, Shanghai, the Philippines and frequently Washington.

Among his novels were "The Seersucker Whipsaw," "The Fools in Town Are on Our Side," "The Porkchoppers," "If You Can't Be Good," "The Mordida Man," "Out on the Rim" and "Twilight at Mac's Place."

Using the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck, Thomas wrote a series of novels featuring the protagonist Philip St. Ives, a professional ransomer of stolen goods and kidnapped people. Among those books were "The Brass Go-Between," "Protocol for a Kidnapping," "The Procane Chronicle," "The Highbinders" and "No Questions Asked."

The author also did some screenwriting, including co-scripting "Hammett" in 1983.

Thomas is survived by his wife of 21 years, the former Rosalie Appleton.

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