1995; 439 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : Crime-Humor. Overall Rating : 7½*/10.
It seemed like it would be such an easy heist. Break into the Loomis Heimhocker Research Facility after hours, and steal some easy-to-pawn items. Except, who knew that the two scientists that worked there also lived in the upstairs loft of the lab?
And so Freddie Urban Noon, a smalltime burglar, finds himself caught in the act by the scientists. And when given the choice between being turned over to the police or “volunteering” to be a guinea pig in their cure-for-cancer research, the decision is really easy. Particularly since they told him where the antidote was kept. Freddie doesn’t plan to be a human lab rat for long.
It turns out, however, that the scientists were fibbing. What he was told was the antidote turns out to be another test solution for curing cancer. And the combination of the two makes people see right through Freddie.
What’s To Like...
In a nutshell, Smoke is Donald Westlake’s spin on the old H.G. Wells classic, “The Invisible Man”. However, since Westlake is best known for his lighthearted-crime novels (the “Dortmunder” series), the protagonist becomes a likeable burglar, and the storyline is more humorous than sci-fi.
It’s a lot of fun to watch Westlake explore the plusses and minuses of being an invisible burglar. Getting in and out of a place is easy, and the store cameras are completely useless. OTOH, Freddie has to work completely naked, which means no pockets, cold hands and feet, and trying to get away with merchandise that is very visible. Everyday life is also difficult – you can’t drive a car, your girlfriend complains of no privacy, and even preparing a sandwich with invisible hands is a daunting challenge.
Donald Westlake develops Freddie and his GF Peg quite fully, but most of the other characters are pretty stereotypical. The break-ins get a bit repetitive, but Westlake sprinkles an adequate amount of humor (the funeral oration on pages 260-266 is hilarious!) and excitement (both the cops and the bad guys are trying to capture Freddie) into the plotline to keep the reader's attention.
You’ll meet a group of gay guys, and Westlake’s portrayal of them is realistic and even-handed, which is surprising for a book written in the 1990’s. Everything builds to an exciting ending, and although the epilogue leaves room for a sequel, Westlake never wrote one, which I personally think was the right decision. This is a standalone novel, and like most Westlake tales, has some cussing in it.
Kewlest New Word. . .
Fershlugginer (adj.) : crazy; wacky; foolish. (a Yiddishism)
Others : Suasion (n.); Gonif (n.); Slope (v.); Toby Jug (n., phrase); Contretemps (n.); Nibelung (n.).
“Beer,” he said.
“Imported. In a bottle.”
“Any particular brand, sir?”
“What’ve you got that’s from the farthest away?”
The barman had to think about that. He wrinkled his mustache briefly, then said, “That would be the one from China.”
“Mainland China? Where they have slave labor?”
“I’ll have that,” Barney decided, and as the barman turned away he gave Leethe his own bleak look and explained, “I like the idea that a lot of people worked long and hard, just for me.” (pg. 194)
“I would like to say a word about kidnapping.”
That shut everybody up. They all stared at Edmond, a bear-like man famous in his group for having more hair on his shoulders than on his head. At last, William, an antiques dealer, said, “Edmond, this isn’t a kidnapping. This is an invisible man!”
Edmond spread his meaty hands. “Hath an invisible man no rights? Hath he not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, even if you can’t see them? If you prick him, doth he not bleed?”
“Not so’s you’d notice,” said Peter. (pg. 360)
It’s hard to look on the sunny side when you’re in a shitstorm. (pg. 416
Overall, the plotline felt a little looser than usual for a Westlake novel, and some of the characters, Michael Prendergast and George Clapp in particular, seemed underused. Also, despite the humor, heists, and chases, things did drag once or twice.
Smoke is not part of the Dortmunder series. Freddie Noon has certain similarities to John Dortmunder, but the invisibility aspect would’ve been a very awkward fit. But it's still an enjoyable read, and Dortmunder devotees will not be disappointed. It’s just that, for most readers, Smoke will never supplant the Dortmunder series as their favorite Donald Westlake book(s).
7½ Stars. Subtract 1 star if you work in the Tobacco Industry.