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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Chinaman's Chance

Ross Thomas

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Chinaman's Chance

Title: Chinaman's Chance
Author: Ross Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 347 pages
Availability: Chinaman's Chance - US
Chinaman's Chance - UK
Chinaman's Chance - Canada
Zigzag - France
Umweg zur Hölle - Deutschland
Pelican Bay - Italia
  • With an Introduction by William Heffernan

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Our Assessment:

A- : plausibility rather overstretched in complicated plot, but some great writing and characterization

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post A 19/3/1978 Roderick MacLeish

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a beautifully paced, sensitive and complex novel -- a mine field of cliches parodied, interlaced with serious, brilliant writing. (...) The plot of Chinaman's Chance is impossible to summarize briefly. (...) It gets a bit bewildering at times, but never completely blurred. (...) What takes Chinaman's Chance far beyond the perimeters of the usual novel of this genre is the subtelty and craft of Ross Thomas's portraiture -- when he chooses to explore characters at some depth." - Roderick MacLeish, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Chinaman's Chance features Arthur 'Artie' Case Wu and Quincy Durant, longtime friends -- they grew up in (and the fled) the same orphanage when they were kids -- who have long been business partners, with 'business' being a stretch for some of the things they've gotten involved in. As someone who gets to know them, and the way they operate, comes to sum up:

they were rather interesting men -- certainly different, if not wholly admirable. But then who the hell was ?
       Wu has (entirely incidentally -- but it adds to the quirky color Thomas plays with throughout the novel) a vague claim to being the pretender to the throne of China, possibly being a direct descendent of the last emperor, P'u Yi, and their path has taken them far and wide -- from a year at Princeton to landing in jail in Mexico, to joining the Peace Corps and being stationed in Indonesia, then heading to Bangkok and cashing in on the Viet Nam war and then running a chili restaurant in Scotland.
       Now they're in California, Durant renting a house on Malibu Beach, while Wu lives with his wife and their two sets of young twins not too far away. The novel opens with Wu jogging on the beach, as he's been doing for some two months now, and tripping over a dead pelican, twisting his ankle. Conveniently, if not at all coïncidentally, he falls near a man walking his six greyhounds -- Randall Piers -- who offers to help him; Wu notes that his partner (conveniently, if not at all coïncidentally ...) lives right there, and Piers helps Wu into Durant's beachside house.
       As is quickly evident, everything has pretty much been staged so that the two partners can introduce themselves to Piers, and he can get a quick impression of them. Right down to the pelican, it turns out (which took a while to find, delaying their plan). From the furnishings to the Reuters newsprinter in the corner, they want Piers to see exactly what they're capable of and willing to do. They even mention one of their current projects: they've been offered a map of where a couple of million dollars lies buried in Saigon, money that was supposed to have been burned when the Americans ended their involvement in the Viet Nam war and fled the country, and they dangle it in front of him; Piers doesn't bite -- but then he's not really supposed to.
       Piers has a problem that he's been struggling with. He is married to one of the three Armitage sisters, who enjoyed great popularity as the singing group Ivory, Lace, and Silk -- their actual names. His wife, Lace, has gone on to movie stardom, and Ivory is dead, but Silk has disappeared from view -- ever since the congressman she was involved with died in what was ruled a murder-suicide, supposedly killed by his wife. Silk arranges to regularly receive some money from Lace, but she's gone underground and doesn't want to be found; she's obviously concerned that what the congressman was looking into could get her killed too. Lace and Piers want to find her, hoping to be able to better help her, but they've failed so far; after his run-in withWu and Durant Piers thinks they might be the two fellows for the job.
       The Viet Nam money-deal and the missing singer turn out not to be entirely unrelated, as Thomas spins an elaborate tale of connections and ambitions -- to cash in, as well as for retribution ("Retribution, not revenge. There's a difference"). It all leads and points to local Pelican Bay, where someone has established themselves in a variety of ways, exerting and consolidating control (and with inconveniences including the congressman in whose district Pelican Bay is conveniently swept out of the way), with very big plans for the future. Wu and Durant's experiences -- and the people they associated with -- in South East Asia play a role here too, with Durant having suffered greatly when things went south (and Wu having gone in and saved him) and now finding an opportunity to at least exact a bit of ... retribution (and to possibly cash in, big time, as well).
       The plan Wu and Durant hatch is an elaborate one, with different stages to it -- some only figured out once they get there -- but it unspools nicely. The final coup is the riskiest, Wu laying it out for Durant -- "It took Artie Wu nearly an hour and forty-five minutes to outline his ideas" -- and observing with considerable satisfaction:
     Wu smiled. "I thought you'd like it."
     "You know what the odds against it are ?"
     Wu shrugged. "We've got a Chinaman's chance."
     "That bad, huh ?"
     Wu stuck a fresh cigar into his mouth and around it grinned a big, wide, white, merry grin. "Nah," he said. "That good."
       There are some plausibility issues in how it all plays out -- a bit too neatly --, as indeed there are for most of the way, but this is a small flaw in an otherwise very enjoyable twisting ride. Thomas unfolds what's going on piece by piece, as the various plots -- what the various figures are after and how they're going about reaching those ambitious ends -- are only revealed (or figured out) piece by piece; it's especially satisfying to see how thought-through Wu and Durant's plan -- much bigger than initially suggested -- turns out to be. It all gets to be a bit much, and a bit too conveniently interconnected, but it's still a load of fun.
       Beyond that, however, what really makes the novel is the characters and how they're presented -- their attitude, their wits, their failings (and their histories). There are shades of grey to most -- though quite a few are definitely only in the darkest spectrum. Most everyone can be bought, if the price is right -- but the price is often very high. From the main bad guys to the police chief who isn't quite the patsy the powers-that-(would-)be hoped to the secondary and tertiary supporting cast and cameos, Thomas nails a lot of this just right. Wu and Durant, too are well-presented: a lot of colorful history, and then a good glimpse of their present-day demeanor, but not over-stuffed characterization. Confidence has a lot to do with it -- a lot of the characters are very self-confident (several of them way more than is good for them), which makes for entertaining encounters. And the real sad saps -- such as the self-sabotaging journalist who never made the big time (but knows a lot of the local secrets) -- fit in nicely too.
       One or two touches are a bit off -- Durant and the ladies (well, the surviving Armitage sisters) is hard to pull of well, and Thomas doesn't quite manage -- but otherwise Chinaman's Chance is really consistently well done. Yes, the plot is overly convoluted -- working, just, out, but also only because the sheer range and complexity allows Thomas to leave it fuzzy enough at its many edges -- but it's also pretty satisfying. And it all is a good deal of fun.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 August 2019

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Chinaman's Chance: Reviews: Ross Thomas: Other books by Ross Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Ross Thomas lived 1926 to 1995.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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