Packaged by just about anybody but Ross Thomas, these convoluted gangland-CIA-government-corruption doings in Southern California would lose you pronto. But Thomas is the guy who writes with a smiling knife, or maybe sometimes a funny fork. And a guy who writes characters. Characters like Attic Woo, who went to Princeton for a while (Edmund Wilson wrote him a recommendation) but long ago dropped out to team up with his old orphanage buddy (""Your friendly local samurai""), and now they're involved in a complicated revenge scheme. Characters like Vincent Imperlino, a godfather who reads Rilke but is in cahoots with a vicious ex-CIA master criminal (object of the above mentioned revenge scheme). Or singer Silk Armitage, who knows that her Congressman lover was murdered (was it because he knew who hired Jack Ruby or because he stood in the way of a ""billion-dollar pilot project for sanitized licentiousness"" in Pelican Bay?) and is hiding out disguised as Madame Magda Szabo, medium. Or conman-for-hire Otherguy Overby, or nymphomaniac Lace Armitage (Silk's sister) with her millionaire husband who walks his greyhounds every morning on the beach. . . . These and other exotic but recognizable smart-talkers will see you through a couple of bloody close encounters and, believe it or not, will link up rather neatly. Trust Ross Thomas. He knows that his plots are venal sins--and he does penance for them with every curling, smashing sentence.