Ross Thomas‘ first novel, The Cold War Swap, was published in 1967. It won the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best first novel of that year. As the crime writer Lawrence Block relates in his introduction to the Kindle Edition of the political thriller Briarpatch, published 17 years later, Swap “launched a career that brought [Thomas] no end of awards, an army of fiercely loyal readers, and a whole shelf of books with his name on them, in none of which one will ever encounter an ill-chosen word, an infelicitous phrase, or a clunky sentence.” Amen to that. And Briarpatch is one of Thomas’ best. It earned the 1985 Edgar Award for best novel of the year.
Briarpatch by Ross Thomas
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In Briarpatch, Thomas ventures anew into the two areas that dominate his writing: the intelligence game, and domestic electoral politics. Thomas himself may have been an officer of the CIA, working in post-war Germany and in Africa. He definitely was involved in stateside political campaigns. It would be difficult to create a character better suited to writing a political thriller than Ross Thomas.
Briarpatch opens as a young homicide detective in a medium-sized Southwestern city is killed when her car explodes. The detective is Felicity Dill, the younger sister of Benjamin Dill, a Washington, DC-based political operative currently working as a “consultant” to a U.S. Senate investigations subcommittee. His boss, the subcommittee’s chief counsel, assigns him to take a deposition from an old friend of Dill’s when he returns home for the funeral. The friend lives in their old home town, the same city where Dill’s sister was murdered. Thomas never identifies the city. But he explains that it is “the capital of a state located just far enough south and west to make jailhouse chili a revered cultural treasure.”
In short order, Dill learns that his sister owned an expensive duplex she couldn’t possibly have afforded. Also, she’d left him the beneficiary of a $250,000 term life insurance policy (nearly $600,000 in 2017 dollars). She couldn’t even have afforded the cost of the policy. Though it’s widely assumed in the police department that Felicity Dill was on the take, Dill is convinced otherwise. He’s determined to uncover the true story and learn who killed his sister. Soon, Dill meets Anna Maud Singe, her friend and lawyer, a beautiful young woman with whom he (naturally) becomes involved. Anna Maud is also convinced Felicity would never have done anything illegal.
Dill’s investigation brings him into close contact with Felicity’s boss, the chief of detectives, and his boss, the city’s chief of police. As he pokes around in the debris of Felicity’s life, Dill takes care of the senator’s business, securing a deposition from his boyhood friend, Jake Spivey. Jake had made a huge fortune from illegal arms deals following the Vietnam War, which explains why the senator is targeting him. However, Dill, and the senator, are even more interested in imprisoning one of Spivey’s former partners—a crooked former CIA officer who has amassed an even greater fortune from crime.
As the story unfolds, this cast of characters becomes intertwined in a complex web of relationships that is difficult for Dill to untangle. Naturally, things will work out in the end, but it takes a while to get there—and there’s a great deal of fun along the way.
Incidentally, Thomas only explains the title, Briarpatch, close to the end of the book. Jake is explaining why he has built a fortune great enough for him to buy the biggest mansion in town and hire a trio of Mexican thugs to guard him. “What I figure I’m really doing is growing my own briarpatch. Grow it high enough and thick enough, there ain’t nobody gonna come poking around in it.” If you remember the Br’er Rabbit fable, you’ll understand.
I’ve also reviewed Thomas’ Out on the Rim at From Ross Thomas: con men, a $5 million bribe, and a Philippine rebellion.
For additional 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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- Top 10 mystery and thriller series;
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For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).
For your information, I’m also listing here all the mysteries and thrillers reviewed in 2017 on this blog.