Cover image of "The Seersucker Whipsaw," by Ross Thomas

Clint Shartelle is a honey-tongued Southerner who wears impeccable three-piece suits and drinks like a fish. (Do fish actually drink? Whatever.) Shartelle claims to be one sixty-fourth Native American, one-twelfth African-American, and the country’s best political campaign manager. Apparently, he is not the only one who believes that. Enter Peter Upshaw, who represents a fast-growing London-based American PR firm. Upshaw carries an offer of an immoderate sum of money for Shartelle to run a campaign in a West African nation that bears a considerable resemblance to Nigeria. This — eventually — turns out to be an offer Shartelle cannot refuse. Thus begins The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas.

Africa for the Africans

It is 1966, barely more than two years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and before the major U.S. escalation that seared the Vietnam War into the memory of all who lived through it. In Africa, decolonization was just getting underway; Ghana had been independent for less than a decade. Presidential elections are scheduled in a country called Albertia (as in Prince Albert, get it?), and the British are falling all over themselves to get out and leave Africa to the Africans. Albertia is wealthy, so competition for the presidency is naturally stiff.

The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas (1992) 208 pages ★★★★★ 

A problematic three-way race

With little delay, Shartelle and Upshaw arrive in Albertia to launch the campaign for Chief Akomolo, the Big Man in the west of the country. He faces two major opponents, one in the north, the other in the east. Unfortunately, both command more populous territories and are better positioned to win than the Chief. To make matters worse, other American organizations are working for the two opponents — and one of them is the CIA. Shartelle, as strategist and manager, and Upshaw, as speechwriter and flack, realize that Akomolo can’t possibly win if they run a clean, straightforward campaign. But Shartelle, it turns out, is a genius at dirty tricks — and Akomolo’s advisers prove to be equally flexible about campaign ethics. For anyone with even the most casual experience in electoral politics, the ensuing campaign is a wonder to behold.

Dialogue that sings

To say that Ross Thomas has a way with words is akin to claiming that Barack Obama is a fair-to-middling orator. His narrative prose is superb, his characters are unforgettable, and his dialogue is priceless: witty, intelligent, and oh-so-natural.

About the author

Ross Thomas began writing novels in the 1960s and passed away twenty years ago, but his books are just as fresh and engaging today as they were when first published. The Seersucker Whipsaw is the fourth of the twenty thrillers he wrote under his own name. He also wrote five novels under a pseudonym and two books of nonfiction.

For more great reading

I’ve listed and linked my reviews of all the Ross Thomas novels I’ve read here: Reviewing Ross Thomas – thrillers that stand the test of time.

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