“America's best storyteller.” The New York Times Book Review
Briarpatchby Ross Thomas
A long-distance call from a Texas city on his birthday gives Benjamin Dill the news that his sisterit's her birthday, too, they were born exactly ten years aparthas died in a car bomb explosion. It's the chief of police callingFelicity Dill worked for him; she was a homicide detective. Dill is there that night, the beginning of his dogged search… See more details below
A long-distance call from a Texas city on his birthday gives Benjamin Dill the news that his sisterit's her birthday, too, they were born exactly ten years aparthas died in a car bomb explosion. It's the chief of police callingFelicity Dill worked for him; she was a homicide detective. Dill is there that night, the beginning of his dogged search for her killer. What he finds is no surprise to him, because Benjamin Dill is never surprised at what awful things people will dobut it's a real surprise to the reader. As Newsday said when the novel was first published, "One sure thing about Ross Thomas's novels: A reader won't get bored waiting for the action to start."
“America's best storyteller.” The New York Times Book Review
- Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group
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By Ross Thomas
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Lawrence Block
All rights reserved.
The long-distance call from the fifty-three-year-old chief of detectives reached Benjamin Dill three hours later. By then, because of different time zones, it was almost half-past eleven in Washington, D.C. When the phone rang, Dill was still in bed, alone and awake, in his one-bedroom apartment three blocks south of Dupont Circle on N Street. He had awakened at five that morning and discovered he was unable to go back to sleep. At 8:30 A.M. he had called his office and, pleading a summer cold, informed Betty Mae Marker he wouldn't be in that day, Thursday, and probably not even Friday. Betty Mae Marker had counseled rest, aspirin, and plenty of liquids.
Dill had decided to forsake work that morning, not because he was sick, but because it was his thirty-eighth birthday. For some inexplicable reason he had come to regard thirty-eight as the watershed year in which youth ran down one side, old age the other. He had spent the morning in bed wondering, with only mild curiosity, how he had managed to accomplish so little in his more than three dozen years.
True, he told himself, you did manage to get married once and divorced twice — no mean feat. A year after his ex-wife had slipped quietly out of his life on that rainy June night in 1978, Dill had filed for divorce in the District of Columbia, charging desertion. Apparently convinced that Dill would never do anything right, she had filed in California, charging irreconcilable differences. Neither divorce was contested and both were granted. The two things Dill now remembered best about his former wife were her long and extremely beautiful blond hair and her unforgivable habit of sprinkling sugar on her sliced tomatoes. As for her face, well, it was fading into something of a blur — albeit a heart-shaped one.
During that long morning of reevaluation, which turned out to be both depressing and boring, Dill wisely ignored his financial balance sheet because it was, as usual, ridiculous. He owned no insurance, no stocks or bonds, no vested pension, no real property. His principal assets consisted of $5,123.82 in a non-interest-bearing checking account at the Dupont Circle branch of the Riggs National Bank and a recently paid for 1982 Volkswagen convertible (an unfortunate yellow) that was parked in the apartment building's basement garage and whose sporty demeanor Dill now found disconcerting. He assumed this new attitude was yet another symptom of galloping maturity.
Dill gave up on his morning of pointless introspection when the long distance call from the fifty-three-year-old chief of detectives began its seventh ring. It was then that he picked up the phone and said hello.
"Mr. Dill?" the voice said. It was a stern voice, even harsh, full of bark and bite, gravel and authority.
"Have you got a sister named Feticity — Felicity Dill?"
"My name's Strucker. John Strucker. I'm chief of detectives down here and if your sister's name is Felicity, she works for me. That's why I'm calling."
Dill took a deep breath, let some of it out, and said, "Is she dead or just hurt?"
There was no pause before the answer came — only a long sigh, which was an answer in itself. "She's dead, Mr. Dill. I'm sorry."
"Dead." Dill didn't make it a question.
And then, because Dill knew he had to say something else to keep grief away for at least a few more moments, he said, "It's her birthday."
"Her birthday," Strucker said patiently. "Well, I didn't know that."
"Mine, too," Dill said in an almost musing tone. "We have the same birthday. We were born ten years apart, but on the same day — August fourth. Today."
"Today, huh?" Strucker said, his harsh voice interested, overly reasonable, and almost kind. "Well, I'm sorry."
"I'm thirty-eight." There was a long silence until Dill said, "How did —" but broke off to make a noise that could have been either a cough or a sob. "How did it happen?" he said finally.
Again, the chief of detectives sighed. Even over the phone it had a sad and mournful sound. "Car bomb," Strucker said.
"Car bomb," Dill said.
"She came out of her house this morning at her regular time, got into her car — one of those all-tin Honda Accords — threw out the clutch, and that's what activated the bomb — the clutch. They used C4 — plastic."
"They," Dill said. "Who the hell are they?"
"Well, it might not've been a they, Mr. Dill. I just said that. It could've been only one guy, but one or a dozen, we're gonna get who did it. It's what we do — what we're good at."
"How quickly did she —" Dill paused and took a deep breath. "I mean, did she —"
Strucker interrupted to answer the incomplete question. "No, sir, she didn't. It was instantaneous."
"I read somewhere that it's never instantaneous."
Strucker apparently knew better than to argue with the recently bereaved. "It was quick, Mr. Dill. Very quick. She didn't suffer." He paused again, cleared his throat, and said, "We'd like to bury her. I mean the department would, if it's okay with you."
"Is it all right with you?"
"Yes, it's all right with me. When?"
"Saturday," Strucker said. "We'll have a big turnout from all over. It's a nice ceremony, real nice, and I'm sure you'll want to be here so if there's anything we can do for you, make you a hotel reservation or something like that, well, just let —"
Dill interrupted. "The Hawkins. Is the Hawkins Hotel still in business?"
"Yes, sir, it is."
"Make me a reservation there, will you?"
"For tonight," Dill said. "I'll be there tonight."CHAPTER 2
Dill stood at one of the tall, almost floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the north side of his living room and watched the old man with the Polaroid take a photograph of the blue Volvo sedan that was illegally parked near the corner of Twenty-first and N Streets.
The old man was the owner of a vacant four-story apartment building across the street from Dill's windows. At one time the old man had leased his bile-green building to a District program that had filled the apartments with drug addicts who were trying to break their habits. After the program's funds ran out, the addicts moved away, no one quite knew where, leaving behind a sackful of drawings that fell off the garbage truck and blew about the neighborhood.
Dill had picked up one of the drawings. It had been done with crayons in harsh primary colors and seemed to be a self-portrait of one of the dopers. There was a purple face with round eyes that had crosses in them and a big green mouth with fangs for teeth. The drawing was on the level of a bright first- or second-grader. Underneath the face was the laboriously printed legend: I AM A NO GOOD FUCKING DOPE FEIND. Dill sometimes wondered if the therapy had helped.
After the addicts moved out of his building, the old man lived in it alone, refusing either to sell or rent the property. He kept busy by taking Polaroid snapshots of the cars that parked illegally in front of it. He angled his shots so that they included both the No Parking sign and the offending car's license plate. Evidence in hand, the old man would then call the cops. Sometimes they came; sometimes they didn't. Dill often watched the old man at work and marveled at his rage.
Dill turned from the window, looked down, and discovered he was holding an empty cup and saucer. He could not remember either making or drinking the coffee. He crossed the room to the kitchen, moving slowly, a tall man with the lean, planed-down body of a runner, a body he had done virtually nothing to acquire, but had inherited from his dead father along with the carved-out, almost ugly face that male Dills had handed down to their sons since 1831 when the first Dill stepped off the boat from England.
The most prominent feature of the face was its nose: the Dill nose. It poked out and then shot almost straight down, not quite curving back into a hook. Below it was the Dill mouth: thin, wide, and apparently remorseless, or merry if the joke were good, the company pleasant. There was just enough chin, far too much to be called weak, but not quite enough for determined, so many settled for sensitive. The Dill ears were large enough to flap in a high wind and grew mercifully close to the head. But it was the eyes that almost rescued the face from ugliness. The eyes were large and gray and in a certain light looked soft, gentle, and even innocent. Then the light would change, the innocence would vanish, and the eyes looked like year-old ice.
At the stainless steel kitchen sink, Dill absently let water rinse over the cup for a full two minutes until he realized what he was doing, turned off the tap, and put both cup and saucer on the drainboard. He dried his wet right hand by running it through his thick dark coppery hair, opened the refrigerator door, peered inside for at least thirty seconds, closed the door, and moved back into the living room, where he stood, totally preoccupied with his sister's death, as another part of his mind tried to remember what he should do next.
Pack, he decided, and started toward the bedroom only to notice the tan leather one-suiter standing near the door that led out into the corridor. You already did that, he told himself, and remembered the suitcase open on the bed, and his robotlike taking of socks, shirts, shorts, and ties from the drawers, the dark-blue funeral suit from the closet, and then his folding them all into the suitcase, and closing it, and lugging it into the living room. Then you made the coffee; then you drank it; and then you watched the old man. He glanced down to make sure he had actually got dressed. He found he was wearing what he thought of as the New Orleans uniform: gray seersucker jacket, white shirt, black knit silk tie, dark-gray lightweight slacks, and black pebble-grain loafers, nicely polished. He could not remember polishing the loafers.
Dill checked his wrist for his watch and patted his pockets for wallet, keys, checkbook, and cigarettes, which he couldn't find, and then remembered he no longer smoked. He glanced once more around the apartment, picked up the airline-scuffed suitcase, and left. On the southwest corner of Twenty-first and N he hailed a cab, agreed with the Pakistani driver that it was cooler than yesterday, but still hot, and asked to be driven first to the bank, and then to 301 First Street, Northeast: the Carroll Arms.
At one time the Carroll Arms, hard by the Capitol, had been a hotel that catered to politicians and to those who worked for them and lobbied them and wrote about them and sometimes went to bed with them. Now it had been taken over by Congress, which housed some of its spillover activities there, including an obscure three-member Senate subcommittee on investigation and oversight. It was this same subcommittee that paid Benjamin Dill $168 a day for his consultative services.
Dill's patron and rabbi, or perhaps abbot, on the three-member subcommittee was its ranking (and only) minority member, the Child Senator from New Mexico, who had been called the Boy Senator from New Mexico until someone wrote an apparently earnest letter to The Washington Post charging that Boy Senator was sexist. A syndicated columnist had seized on the issue and got a column out of it by suggesting that Child Senator might be far more fitting in these troubled times. He also had consoled the Senator with the observation that he would all too soon outgrow the appellation. However, the new nickname had stuck and the Senator wasn't at all unhappy about the space and the air time it had earned him.
The Child Senator's name was Joseph Ramirez and he was from Tucumcari, where he had been born thirty-three years ago. His family had money and he had married more. He also had a law degree from Harvard and a B.A. from Yale, and he had never worked a day in his life until he was named assistant county attorney a year out of law school. He made a local name for himself by helping send a county commissioner to jail for accepting a bribe that allegedly amounted to $15,000. And although everyone had known for years that the commissioner was bent as bobwire, they were still surprised and impressed when young Ramirez actually sent the old coot to jail. The kid's a comer, they had agreed, and it was generally conceded that with all that Ramirez money (and don't forget the wife, she's got money too) the kid might go far.
Ramirez went to the State Senate and then leapfrogged into the U.S. Senate in his thirty-second year. He now made no secret of his desire to be the first Latino President of the United States, which he figured would be around 1992 or 1996 or maybe even 2000, when "we beaners will make up the majority of the electoral vote anyhow." Not everyone thought the Child Senator was kidding.
To Benjamin Dill the corridors of the Carroll Arms still reeked of old-style tag-team politics, and of its cheap scent and loveless sex and hundred-proof bourbon and cigars that came wrapped in cellophane and were sold for a quarter one and two at a time. Although he considered himself a political agnostic, Dill liked most politicians — and most laborskates and consumer fussbudgets and civil rights practitioners and professional whale watchers and tree huggers and antinuke nuts and almost anyone who would rise from one of the wooden folding chairs at the Tuesday night meeting in the basement of the Unitarian church and earnestly demand to know "what we here tonight can do about this." Dill had long since despaired that there was not much anyone could do about anything, but those who still believed there was interested him and he found them, for the most part, amusing company and witty conversationalists.
Dill walked through the door marked 222 and into the cluttered reception room where Betty Mae Marker ruled as major domo over the subcommittee's limited precincts. She glanced up at Dill, studied him for a moment, and then let sympathy and concern flood across her dark-brown handsome face.
"Somebody died, didn't they?" she said. "Somebody close passed on."
"My sister," Dill said as he put down his suitcase.
"Oh, Lord, Ben, I'm so sorry. Just say what I can do."
"I have to fly home," Dill said. "This afternoon."
Betty Mae Marker already had the phone to her ear. "American okay?" she asked as she started punching the number.
"American's fine," Dill said, knowing if a seat was available, she would get him on the flight and, in fact, would get them to bump someone off if it was full. Betty Mae Marker had worked on Capitol Hill for twenty-five of her forty-three years, almost always for men of great power, and consequently her reputation was impressive, her intelligence network formidable, and her fund of political due bills virtually inexhaustible. Bidding for her services was often spirited, even fierce, and many of her cronies had wondered why she let the Child Senator lure her over to that do-nothing subcommittee stuck way off down there in the Carroll Arms.
"Coattails, sugar," she had replied. "That man's got the longest, fastest-moving set of coattails I've seen up here since Bobby Kennedy." After Betty Mae Marker's assessment got around, the Child Senator's political stock crept up a few points on the invisible Capitol Hill index.
Dill waited while Betty Mae Marker murmured softly into the phone, giggled, scrawled something on a scrap of paper, hung up, and handed the scrap to Dill. "Leaves Dulles at 2:17, first class," she said.
"I can't afford first class," Dill said.
"They're overbooked on coach, so for the same price they're gonna stick you up there in first class with all the free liquor and the youngest stews, which I thought might cheer you up a little." The genuine sympathy again swept across her face. "I'm so sorry, Ben. You all were close, weren't you? — I mean, real close."
Dill smiled sadly and nodded. "Close," he agreed, and then gestured toward one of the two closed doors — the one that led into the office of the subcommittee's minority counsel. "He in?"
"Senator's with him," she said, picking up the phone again. "Lemme break the news and then all you've gotta do is poke your head in, say hello, and be off about your own sad business."
Again, Betty Mae Marker murmured into the phone in that practiced contralto, which was pitched so low that Dill, standing only a yard away, could scarcely make out what she was saying. She hung up, nodded toward the closed door, smiled, and said, "Watch."
Excerpted from Briarpatch by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 2003 Lawrence Block. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ross Thomas is ranked as one of the very top thriller writers by his fellow authors, and his readers loudly agree. Two Edgar Awards, and other prizes, only complement the abundant praise that Thomas has received.
Thomas died in 1995, and since then all but one of his twenty-five novels have gone out of print. This should never have happened to the man of whom The New Yorker has said, "Very few...are as consistently entertaining...even fewer can match him for style and power." St. Martin's Minotaur is proud to remedy this situation by reissuing Thomas's novels. So start reading, and prepare to join Ross Thomas's legions of admiring fans.
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We've all had that vacation from hell: it involves stitches, mechanics, and the phrase 'We haven't had this kind of weather around here for years.' In 1984 my wife and I had a 'Holiday' like this. Confined, mechanically and meterologically, to a motel room we walked to the local bookstore. I plucked a hardcover mystery off the shelf by a writer I'd never heard of, 'Briarpatch' by Ross Thomas. It turned out, after all, to be a great vacation. I recently re-read 'Briarpatch' and it more than stands the test of time. It is a dynamic, funny, haunting, and forceful book--which flows effortlessly, seamlessly. Do yourself a favor and read everything Thomas has written. (He also writes under a pseudonym, Oliver Bleeck: also wonderful.) Although I never met him, Ross Thomas inspired and encouraged me as a mystery writer; I used him as a long distance mentor, learning how to make a town or city a character in the book; how to describe architecture; how to make a crime scene more grisly and horrific by describing it simply. Thanks, Ross. Pick up 'Briarpatch' everyone. 50 years from now when people are talking about great mysteries of the late 20th century, it'll be near the top of the list.
Never heard of Ross Thomas and picked this up on a lark. Have been trying to find a mystery author that I realllly like. Mr. Thomas fills the bill. Character development, plot, the whole nine yards. Wonderful book. I hesitate to discuss the plot - nonetheless, buy it and enjoy
I listened to this book on tape while driving to and from work every day. Hated getting to my destination and looked forward to getting in the car again. The characters are well-drawn and the plot keep me wanting more details. Finally, I cared what happened in the story and language is smart -- an intelligent read!
Arguably Thomas' best novel, and a book anyone who enjoys political thrillers will love. Great story, strong characters, superior dialogue -- if you aren't already familiar with Ross Thomas, you will really like this.