The Seersucker Whipsaw

The Seersucker Whipsaw



The Pequod Review:

The Seersucker Whipsaw is one of Ross Thomas's best early novels, a humorous political thriller set in the newly-independent African colony of Albertia as it undertakes its first democratic election. The story centers on two American political operatives — a silver-tongued Southerner (Clint Shartelle) and a brilliant but cynical speechwriter (Peter Upshaw) — who are hired by a British corporation to ensure their favored candidate wins. The book is superb right out of the gate: 

I had never met Clinton Shartelle, but I had seen pictures of him in the elaborate dossier that the agency had compiled and bound in a leather folder that made it look like a presentation to Anaconda Copper. We always went sled-length in that agency. The pictures had been mostly news shots, grainy stuff from AP, UPI’s Wide World, Black Star, and the rest of the commercial houses. In nearly all of them Shartelle had been in the background, apparently by accident, standing slightly behind and to the right of the photos’ principal figures. In most of the shots he wore a preoccupied look, as if he were trying to remember whether he had turned off the roast. In others, he was next to a variety of beaming but somehow glassy-eyed men — young, old, and middleaged — who smiled vacuous smiles and made some small gesture of victory: a thumb and index finger forming an O or hands clasped together over their heads in the boxer’s salute.

The pictures showed Shartelle as a man with a face in the shape of a broken heart. His chin came to a rough point and a wide mouth wandered around above it. His nose was on the right track until it got halfway to where it was supposed to go and then it veered slightly to the left. It was a good nose, a strong nose. His eyes in the pictures were dark and direct and the left eyebrow was in a fixed arc that lent him a questioning look. It was a face that gave off, if it gave off anything, an air of preoccupied amusement that stopped just short of cynicism, but not much short. He was using a towel on the short-cropped hair that was his trademark, when I approached him. The hair met in a widow’s peak, was pure white, and had been so since he was nineteen years old.


Shartelle had a small suite in the old part of the Brown Palace on Sixteenth and Broadway. He had a view of the mountains, furniture that was a cross between Italian Provincial and Midwestern Modern, about two dozen books, and an ample liquor supply. It looked as if he had settled in for a long stay.

“You a married man, Mr. Upshaw?”

“Not any more.”

“Well, I don’t reckon this kind of living would appeal to a married man.”

“It probably depends on how long he’s been married.”

Shartelle grinned. “It might at that. Why don’t you fix yourself a drink while I take a shower. There’s a bucket of ice in the refrigerator and the refrigerator is in the bottom of that thing that looks like an escritoire.”

I poured a measure of Virginia Gentleman into a glass, dropped in two ice cubes which slopped a little of the liquor over the side, added some water and walked over to the window to see what I could of the mountains at night. There were some lights high up, but at night Denver looked very much like Birmingham, New Orleans, and Oklahoma City which were the three other towns where I had been searching for Clinton Shartelle.

He came out of the bedroom wearing a white shirt, a yellow, green and black striped tie that rightfully belonged to the Lancashire Fusiliers, dark gray slacks, and black loafers. His thick white hair was brushed and lay close to his head in a damp, tidy pile.

“‘Denver,’ some early settler once remarked, ‘has more sunshine and sons of bitches per square foot than any place else in the United States.’ He may have been right. I know Pig Duffy would feel right at home here.” He walked over to the fake writing desk and put some ice in a glass. “I see you have your drink, Mr. Upshaw.”

“I’m fine.”

He sat in an armchair and took a sip of his whiskey. From a distance he would look sixty, until you saw him move. The dossier said he was forty-three. Up close, if you blocked out the hair, he looked thirty-two or thirty-three despite the wide mouth and the meandering nose. I decided that it must be his eyes. There has been a lot of nonsense written about childlike gazes, but Shartelle seemed to look out on the world with the lesson-learning gray eyes of a nine-year-old who has been told that he must save the ten-dollar bill he found under the bench in the park. Although he knows he will never find another one, he also knows that he will never again tell anybody if he does.

“What role do you play in the Duffy charade, Mr. Upshaw?”

“I’m an account executive.”

“Which side?”

“Public relations.”

“In London?”


“While I was taking a shower, I was thinking about your name. You did a series on Hungary a long time ago.” He named the paper I had worked for.

“You’re right. It was a long time ago.”

“And now you’re flacking for Pig Duffy?”

“They’re calling us public relations practitioners this year.”

“How’d you locate me?”

“I checked with the national committee in Washington. They had a rough itinerary. I kept just missing you. My instructions were to make the proposition in person; no phone calls.”

From there the plot twists and turns (I don't want to spoil it), as Shartelle and Upshaw bring their shrewd and manipulative campaign tactics to the unsuspecting Albertians. Ross Thomas (1926-1995) actually worked for a time as a political consultant in Nigeria, which undoubtedly inspired some of the story's key events and textural details. It's all extremely well-done and great fun from beginning to end.