IN A COUNTRY that chooses to canonize a few of its many fine comic novelists and ignore the rest, Ross Thomas is something of a secret. Missionary Stew is Thomas's 19th novel (five of them were issued under the pseudonym Oliver Bleeck), but the people who know and relish the work of Ishmael Reed, Don DeLillo, and Peter DeVries do not know the work of Ross Thomas, and that seems a great shame. Perhaps Missionary Stew, certainly the best of the Thomas novels I've read, will help to rectify that situation. It is funny, cynical, and altogether delicious. If buying a novel is, as a friend of mine once said, always a speculative investment for the reader, then take it from me--this one is a blue-chip stock. Baby, you can't go wrong.

This is the tale of Morgan Citron, a middle-aged journalist who has come back alive--barely--from an utterly hellacious experience in Africa . . . one that people keep asking him about. Unfortunately. Into his life come the governor-elect of California, Baldwin Veatch (the last name rhymes with "wretch"), a man who already has his gaze fixed firmly on the White House; Draper Haere, a political kingmaker with a taste for renegades (not to mention the governor-elect's sumptuous wife); and a waiflike child-woman named Velveeta Keats (yeah, you got it right).

After being introduced to Citron's boa constrictor of a mother, a retired dope dealer who now owns a chain of shoe stores, and any number of sleazy government operatives of both the FBI and the CIA, Citron ends up, along with Haere and Velveeta (some of whose sexual fantasies incorporate Log Cabin syrup), in a fictitious Central American country where there has been a cocaine war. The temptation to summarize further is almost insurmountable, but it would be wrong. This story is wound up tight and right, and I've given away punchlines enough--suffice it to say that it moves so fast it makes the last Ludlum novel you read look like a Dodgem car in an amusement park. Thomas is taut, spare, and direct. Put another way, anyone who follows baseball knows you don't try to explain a curve; you just enjoy it. Instead, watch the way Ross Thomas writes:

"Time was, he told himself, when people going somewhere could be divided up into three classes: bus guys, train guys, and plane guys. Bus guys wore coats and pants that didn't match and tieless shirts buttoned up to their necks. Train guys dressed a little better, if not much, and carried shoeboxes filled with fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and potted-meat sandwiches. Plane guys all wore $100 suits with vests and if they couldn't think of anything else to do, they'd climb up on a shoeshine stand . . . Nowadays, though, you couldn't tell the plane guys from the bus guys. They had leveled it all out. It's like they'd gone over it with a grader."

This is crisp, incisive, delightful stuff; you read it and say, "Yeah, that had crossed my mind, but this guy pinned it down for me." And he does it again and again and again; such clear observation coupled with such cheerfully wicked plotting and such a Damon Runyon gallery of characters deserves a cheer. For my money, the only writer who can now be classed with Ross Thomas is Donald Westlake, and while Westlake usually offers us a broader canvas (Kahawa, for instance), Thomas is often sharper--he is, if you like, the Jane Austen of the political espionage story. Missionary Stew pays off good. You can't ask for any more than that.