Thursday, January 2, 2014


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Smoke (The Mysterious Press, 1996).

Trust Donald E. Westlake to take a sci-fi chestnut and give it a goofball, criminal spin. I ran across this book while looking for all of his Dortmunder novels and am so glad that I gave it a chance, because it is hilarious and very, very clever.

A professional thief in Dortmunder's vein, named Freddie Urban Noon, breaks into a promising address in Manhattan and is captured by two oddball researchers who are working in a very, very loose way for Big Tobacco. They've been changing the melatonin in the skins of animals, but need some human trials, so they offer him the opportunity to work for them rather than being given to the police. Freddie thinks that a second drug is an antidote, and the researchers don't discourage that idea, but when he escapes the quacks and takes the second drug, the mixture renders him completely invisible.

Freddie uses his newfound powers to steal diamonds and furs and, later, trucks filled with electronics, occasionally wearing Bart Simpson or Ayatollah Khomeni masks, but invisibility is putting a hell of a strain on his relationship with his girlfriend, who has to meet Freddie's very shady fence for them. Meanwhile, the researchers are after him, the police are after him, and the tobacco industry is after him as well.

It's a very funny book, and it's also a very intelligent book. The premise is outlandish, of course, but Westlake did a terrific job considering what invisibility might be like, and how emotionally awful it must be for anybody to live with an invisible man, never knowing whether or not you are in private, never being able to read the body language of the person you love. As always, Westlake provides fun and amusing details of the ins and outs of the crimes, with invisibility making some things much easier, but throwing up unexpected barriers and problems as well. That this hasn't been made into a film is oddly curious; it could make a good one for an unknown lead actor. Recommended.

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