The three who survived the ambush on the black-sand beach were the 19-year-old second lieutenant of infantry; the 5-foot-4 guerrilla; and the huge, somewhat crazed medical corpsman who had sweated, starved and raved away 16 pounds in the week that followed.

-- From "Out on the Rim," by Ross Thomas

Sometime Washington novelist, Malibu screen writer, Oklahoma teen-age sportswriter, Nigerian political pundit, labor union consultant and cat lover Ross Thomas no longer looks like the 19-year-old infantryman he once was, fighting in the Philippines. At 61, he looks more like a newspaper rewrite man, which he also once was.

He has a face with some resemblance to a crumpled first draft: x-ed out words on newsprint that squashes into a softer ball than ordinary paper.

He's rewritten every line of his face -- as well as his life -- in his 21 books. As a teen-age infantryman in the Philippines during World War II and as a reporter in southwestern Louisiana in 1949-1950, he says, "I saw enough violence to last a lifetime. In combat there was little heroism, and not many fake reactions." This reality taught him, he says, "If you're going to write about violence -- and it's the crux of the suspense story: who dies, who doesn't -- it should be the way people react to it, not the way they're supposed to. I saw a lot of violence, and I always found the reactions of soldiers, cops and people interesting -- the lack of reaction, the numbness. Nobody was horrified or amazed. Nobody was anything."

And he remembers those long, hot Oklahoma evenings as a child on the porch while the elders talked in the most polite and interested way about "disease, sickness and death -- who was going to die and what from."

In the beginning episode of his latest book "Out on the Rim" (a current Book-of-the-Month Club selection) the three soldiers see Japanese scouts coming. The medic named Profette wants to kill them, but the other two realize the scouts are the vanguard of a large company; to shoot the forerunners would be suicide. Thomas writes:

... Hovey Profette lunged for the Garand, tore it easily from Booth Stallings' grasp, jammed its butt into his own right shoulder and was sighting down the sightless barrel when the blade of the guerrilla's bolo sliced almost halfway through the 18-inch neck ...

The second lieutenant asks the guerrilla how they're going to explain the medic's death to the major. Theguerrilla says:

"We -- you and I -- will tell Major Crouch that our fallen comrade died bravely defending the rear.' " He paused to gaze thoughtfully at the dead Profette. "The wild pigs'll eat him by morning."

For a dozen seconds Booth Stallings stared at the still squatting guerrilla with a frozen expression that agreed to nothing. For during those twelve seconds Stallings had stumbled across what to him was a new and comforting credo, an epiphany of sorts, that neatly excised the moral imperative and left him not only comforted, but also wiser and older. Much older. At least 26 ...

Stallings spoke in his new cold grown-up voice.

"You've got a whole lot of elastic up in that head of yours, don't you, Al? I mean, you can make it stretch and wrap around just about anything you want it to."

"I think," Alejandro Espiritu said, almost smiled, thought better of it and started over. "I think we should recommend poor Profette here for a posthumous medal -- a Bronze or Silver Star perhaps?"

Booth Stallings gazed down at the dead medic and lapsed Quaker ... "Let's go for the DSC."

Thomas is good at that sort of thing. Just when the violence is unbearable, he twists murder into the macabre, sadism into the sardonic, making it both awful and ridiculous, which it is. He doesn't glorify blood and gore, but shows evil as banal, senseless. He likes to think of himself as a realist, but his books may carry the impact they do because he manages the delicate balance of horror and humor in a "drink today, for tomorrow we die; laugh today, for tomorrow we cry" kind of world.

Three weeks after the Corazon Aquino revolution, Thomas, like his infantry hero grown to 60, went back to the Philippine islands of Luzon and Cebu. He talked to some who claimed to be rebels from the New People's Army. The manager of the Avis car rental told Thomas that if things had gotten any worse under Marcos, he was ready to head for the mountains.

But the poverty and problems made Thomas think that "Nothing had really happened. The real military coup will be the next time." And he began "Out on the Rim" because, as he puts it, "in a book you have the freedom to do anything you want to do."

You always have a complete description, and often a short biography, of each character in a Thomas novel. His characters are well rounded, often quixotic. They have wonderful names. Like Maurice (Otherguy) Overby, "housesitter to the stars," for instance, who appears in both "Chinaman's Chance" and Thomas' latest book, "Out on the Rim."

In the latter, Thomas describes his leading character's son-in-law as looking "as if he had been put together by someone who hadn't bothered to read the directions."

In his 1967 "The Seersucker Whipsaw," he writes:

Shartelle seemed to look out on the world with the lesson-learning 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.

Thomas returned to Washington a while back to be sure the Madison Hotel and Dupont Circle (both in the new book) are still here. It seemed fair to ask him, since he's so good at describing characters, how he would describe himself.

With the hesitant speech of a man first writing it out in his head, he answers: "I've got a high forehead, far too high. My eyes are slightly popped. Big and hazel. An indefinite mouth, and not quite enough chin, I suppose. I don't look like anybody -- perhaps Mr. Average. Maybe I do look like a rewrite man, or a copy desk type. I'm still a pretty fast writer."

He doesn't add that his eyes look like those of a man who not only believes in the conspiracy but also thinks you may be part of it.

On this day, Thomas is wearing a herringbone jacket with wooden buttons on the sleeves, a button-down shirt, a nonthreatening tie and well-polished shoes, with eyebrows that each go up in the middle like a caret, the mark editors put on copy to show an insert. On his arm is a link watch bracelet -- like the gold one a political prisoner in his 1983 book, "Missionary Stew," uses link by link to bribe his captors.

Thomas lived in Washington in the '60s and early '70s, working as a pen-for-hire on Capitol Hill because, he says, he is a political news junkie and liked his fix to come on his doorstep in the morning.

In "Missionary Stew," he draws a satirical self-portrait of himself as Haere, a political consultant and writer:

The sad brown eyes, the weary mouth, the delicate nose, and the sturdy chin had somehow melded themselves into a long-suffering look that many mistook for past tragedy, but that was actually chronic exasperation. Because of his almost saintly looks, Haere was the first person trusting strangers turned to with their tales of despair and their questions about how to get to Disneyland. Haere could have been a world-class confidence man. He had instead gone into politics on the nuts-and-bolts side, and nearly everyone agreed that he was the best there was at his particular specialty, which was writing letters to people and getting money back in the mail.

In "The Porkchoppers" he describes the sort of flack he once worked with:

He had learned to use radio in the '30's, and television in the '50's and he used them skillfully in a nasty, clever way that assured maximum impact plus the added bonus of the newspaper stories and outraged editorials that his commercials invariably inspired.

But Della remained essentially a newspaperman, a muckraker, an exposer of vice and wrongdoing, a viewer with alarm who had never quite got over the feeling that almost any evil could be cured by 90-point headlines ...

Exercising was Mickey Della's only bane. The prospect of a six-block walk would send him into a deep depression. He had been known to take a cab to cross the street, but it had been Constitution Avenue, which is a wide street, and besides it had been raining.

In the 1960s, as a public relations man in London, Thomas was sent by Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne to Nigeria to "inject a little American razzmatazz" into a political campaign for Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Thomas shot the whole dose, including skywriting, but the chief lost, was sentenced to prison for high treason, made a comeback and died a year ago in bed. But out of Africa came Thomas' "The Seersucker Whipsaw," the funniest African novel since Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop."

In "Whipsaw," he speaks from empirical knowledge when the campaign manager explains that the writing of "The" speech, the basic one of the campaign, is "a gift -- like being able to play a piano by ear." The speech writer amends that to: "It's a gift. Like playing a piano by ear. In a whorehouse."

He's as hard on other professions:

Robert Henry Orr, the man whom the OSS had called Nanny, seldom got out to the Pentagon because he didn't like the smell of burning ambition, which, he had decided long ago, had an odor all its own.

In 1966, Thomas worked for Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson to shape up into 350 concise pages the 1,000 handwritten pages about the workings of the Cosa Nostra written by Joseph Valachi, a mobster protected by the FBI. Thomas got at least two books out of the Pearson/Anderson assignment, "The Singapore Wink" and "If You Can't Be Good."

In the latter he describes the eyes of a character, Frank Size, a columnist, "the most feared man in Washington," who writes in "his own 'God-ain't-it-awful style' ":

If contempt had a color, it would be the same shade of gray as his eyes, the pale, cold, glittering gray of polished granite in winter rain. They were eyes that seemed to have priced the world and found it to be a cheap and shoddy place filled with undesirable tenants always late with the rent.

Thomas has a great fondness for Washington, even after 13 years in Malibu, Calif. His new book starts at a seven-story building just east of Dupont Circle at 1776 Massachusetts Ave., the same site where his hero, Booth Stallings, the young infantryman now become a 60-year-old terrorist expert, used to live in an old brick house.

Thomas once lived in Kalorama, not far from what in an essay he called "the most fascinating intersection in town, Connecticut and R ... in an old apartment building where Warren Gamaliel Harding is rumored to have once kept his mistress."

Saloonkeeper McCorkle, one of "The Backup Men," lived just south of Dupont Circle:

If the neighborhood was not as fashionable as Georgetown, it had more flavor, and that's what city living supposedly is all about. Within a one-block radius, I needed no more than three minutes to contract for either a bag of heroin or an angel food cake and that must have been what the apartment's management meant when it advertised the place as being convenient to fine shopping.

No Thomas character ever seems to have a fixed address, at home or work and certainly none turns in time cards. They do answer the question of what a newspaperman could do if his paper is sold, or a spy when his cover is gone with the wind, or a terrorism expert when his study comes too close to the truth.

"I give them the background of reporting experience, so the character has what he needs to do some detecting, analyzing, investigating -- so he knows what numbers to call," he says.

Thomas reports all of his novels carefully, satisfying the "who he?" demands of that heavy city editor in his head. He's the sort of writer who when he's writing about a manhole, gets up, goes out to the street and looks at a manhole.

In "The Procane Chronicles," his protagonist, St. Ives, a former columnist, now a go-between, is buying back some incriminating papers:

"Okay," I said, doing some rapid calculation. "It's going to weigh about three and one-fourth pounds ... That's what sixty thousand dollars in fifties and thirty thousand in hundreds will weigh."

He researched that one by calling the Treasury Department. "They have somebody over there who answers the question four times a day," he said.

"I try to make my own personal observation. And I like to read about the subject. I weave historical facts and observation."

Reading is a compulsion with Thomas. He once told The Armchair Detective magazine that he couldn't imagine anyone writing who didn't like to read. Thomas went through more than 100 books, mostly rather dull memoirs of former British civil servants published by vanity presses, to establish the brocaded background of Shanghai for "The Fools in Town Are on Our Side." He reads in the afternoon, after he's finished writing.

Thomas listens a lot, certainly more than he talks: "What is eavesdropping to others is research to the novelist. I do it all the time." He may write dialogue better than any novelist alive. And he makes you hear every word his characters speak. When he lived in Washington, he could describe the way people spoke in each of the city's neighborhoods -- from Foxhall to Anacostia. He writes of a black cop in "The Backup Men": "If he had any accent at all, it was East Coast Bitter."

Earlier, Thomas was an American Armed Forces Network correspondent in Frankfurt and Bonn, the background for his first novel, "The Cold War Swap." Thomas wanted to call it "The Christmas Help," after the amateur spies the CIA enlists, but the publisher was afraid bookstores would put it on the shelves by "A Christmas Carol."

Thomas had always intended to write a novel, he says. The way he's fond of telling it, in 1965 a Southern girlfriend asked him why he didn't write a novel and sell it to the "movin' pictures." He was between campaigns ($60 a day, not bad money then, plus expenses) and had "what you need to write a novel: money and time." He wrote "The Cold War Swap" in six weeks (sometimes he says seven), wrapped it up in brown paper, tied it with a string, sent it off to William Morrow & Co. publishers, the one his only novelist friend had been published by. And two months later, on what he says was the happiest day of his life, he got a letter from Morrow accepting it.

Later, in 1973, Thomas, as usual, was spending a considerable amount of time in the Library of Congress, researching his books, when he found there his second wife, Rosalie Appleton. They were married the next year. They live now in Malibu. She helps him with Dewey decimals and newspaper and magazine clippings ("she's the best researcher in the world").

-

Thomas may be the first man ever saved from drinking, smoking and gulping black coffee by becoming a novelist.

You can chart his road to abstention through the 21 books, from the hard drinking in the Berlin bar in "The Cold War Swap" (even Thomas says "nobody ever drank as much as that") to the delicate sherry in the paneled office in "Out on the Rim." He quit drinking in 1961, but he had a few lapses since. A binge would last a week or 10 days -- the writer's-painter's-actor's disease,he calls it. But he found that drinking interfered with his writing. And 13 or so years ago, he decided he'd rather write than drink at all. "You have to make up your mind that you don't do it any more. The older you get, the easier it is," he says.

Even harder for a writer, three years ago, he quit smoking three packs of Pall Malls a day. Though he finds it rather silly "for a grown man to walk down the street chewing gum," he's now a chain nicotine-gum chewer.

It took him years to find out that "it wasn't the mechanics of smoking, taking it out of your pocket, lighting it, breathing it in, watching the smoke -- I don't need all that -- it is the nicotine I need," he said.

Along his way to sainthood, he's almost quit drinking coffee, down to one cup a day from 10 or 15, the usual amount needed to fuel a rewrite man or a novelist. "I have no remaining bad habits," he says, with regret. "Or I wouldn't if I could quit eating."

To all this virtue, he adds five or six hours of writing a day, six days a week. "And now I have 21 books to show for it. And I haven't had to teach." This is no small boast, in a country where less than 5 percent of novelists are said to earn a living from their books. All his books have been optioned for the movies (though only one has been filmed, "St. Ives" with Charles Bronson). He's written 10 or 12 screenplays of his own books, other people's books ("Hammett" in which, as he says, he played a bit role as a "pervert") and an original one or two. But now "the books make more than the screenplays," he says. He once said that working for the movies was no more satisfying than he'd expect group sex to be.

In California he's gained a reputation as a script doctor -- a man who for a suitable number of zeros after a figure will, in a weekend, transform a dud of a television episode into a witty "Hardcastle & McCormack" show.

Thomas admits to being a recluse now. Seclusion is the novelist's portion. Not that he feels lonely. "I don't feel isolated because I'm dealing with characters and people. I've been in a crowd all day.

"I like working at home. Some people find it distracting, but I might as well be going down the road to the office to work for six hours a day. I eat lunch at my desk in six minutes. I write about 10 pages a day and save about four of those."

Thomas writes on a 1969 Adler mechanical typewriter, not a computer. "When the power goes off, I'm the only writer in Malibu who can keep on working."

He works in what he calls a rather small, ordinary, "very '50s house" on a hillside in Malibu, in one of the two bedrooms, the one that overlooks the garden. "If my office was the bedroom looking at the ocean, I'd never get a word written. I could look at the ocean all day." The walls of the rooms are solid with books, except for the big windows.

The furniture is a conglomeration of this and that, though always honest, sturdy stuff. A few pictures are here and there, an architectural drawing of a Parisian building, a geometric, a watercolor. The house is watched over by a 16-year-old Siamese cat named Manny, an immigrant from Washington, and another cat, 10 or 12 years old, named Melissa.

Today, first editions of Thomas novels in rare-book stores sell for more than those of any other living suspense novelist ($150 and up for one in good condition). Several young writers have tried to copy his laconic style -- including one in the Netherlands who writes under the name "Thomas Ross." Thomas' books, all still in print in paperback (currently from Harper & Row, Mysterious Press and Penguin), bring in enough that he doesn't have to write screenplays anymore if he doesn't want to. And he can afford to fly off to the Philippines if he has an idea for a new book, which he did.

He's become a cult figure, building a devoted readership, too discriminating to be called fanatical. Old China hands call him on the phone in the middle of the night after reading "The Fools in Town Are on Our Side" (1970), convinced he spent the 1930s in Shanghai as did his hero, the well-named Lucifer Dye. A man in Anchorage called to demand the return of McCorkle, the Bonn and Washington saloonkeeper who appears in three Thomas books.

He won an Edgar, the mystery-suspense equivalent of the Oscar, for his first novel, "The Cold War Swap," and another Edgar for "Briarpatch" (1984) about a town much like the one in Oklahoma where he grew up and worked as a reporter when he was in his teens.

"Out on the Rim" has attracted even more general attention. And his new hardback publisher, Mysterious Press, headed by Thomas fiend Otto Penzler, has mounted a steady program of advertising quoting the most familiar suspense writers. Ed McBain says Thomas writes "with a switchblade knife."

This fame after acclaim -- the interview in People, the 11-city personal appearance circuit -- after 21 years is, Thomas says, as close to Heaven as anyone who used to be a newspaperman himself is likely to get.

And what will happen next? Well, he has another book coming out of his Adler typewriter. But just what he plans to do, he leaves -- well, ambiguous, like the endings of his books. "I always like to leave some question, not as to what has happened, but what will," Thomas says.