Cover image of "The Backup Men," a thriller about competing hit men

Get ready for another wild ride in the lives of Mac McCorkle and Michael Padillo. Mac and Mike were co-owners of a saloon called Mac’s Place, in Bonn, West Germany. Mac was a special-operations officer in Burma in World War II, Mike a spy and hit man for an unnamed U.S. government agency. (It’s involved in espionage, but it’s not the CIA.) Now that Mac’s Place has been dynamited and left in ruins as a result of one of Mike’s missions gone awry, Mac has reopened the place in Washington, DC, where Mike has rejoined him. They’re about to become entangled in a murky tale involving competing hit men.

Though Mac is content to run the bar and restaurant, which is making a great deal of money, it seems that his life is repeatedly disrupted when Mike’s old career comes back to haunt him. This time, in The Backup Men, Mike is approached by a shadowy European character named Walther Gothar, a killer for hire he knew back in the old days. Mike refuses to accept Gothar’s invitation to join him in protecting an important foreign visitor to the U.S. Eventually, though, he is forced to relent when Gothar turns up dead — in Mac’s luxurious apartment. To learn the identity of Gothar’s killer and ensure that Mac isn’t in danger, Mike now agrees to accept the job, working with Gothar’s twin sister.

The Backup Men by Ross Thomas ★★★★☆

Skullduggery is inevitable

Since The Backup Men is one of Ross Thomas’ many thrillers, Mac will, of course, eventually be forced to join Mike on what inevitably proves to be a fool’s errand. With shady characters popping out of the woodwork at every turning point in the story, skullduggery is inevitable. There will be many surprises along the way to the satisfying end. There will also be a great deal of fun.

Thomas’ writing is invariably witty and clever, with a strong dose of cynicism. The dialogue sparkles, and his narrative prose often does, too. Here he is, describing a seedy saloon: “The Chatterbox drew a mixed clientele in that half of the customers were drunk while the other half were trying to get that way and would soon succeed, if their money held out.” And here, referring to a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC: “I noticed that a lot of the old buildings had been torn down and if you liked to look at parking lots, you might say that the neighborhood had been improved.”

About the author

Mac McCorkle and Michael Padillo appear in four of the 25 thrillers written by the late Ross Thomas (1926-95).

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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