“Smoke” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. Smoke (1995)  
Mysterious Press, 454 pages, $21.95  hardcover  
ISBN 0-89296-543-7

Freddie Noon is a twice-convicted thief in New York City.  So when he’s caught by Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker stealing electronic equipment from their research facility, he decides that becoming their experimental subject is better than the alternative:  a third, and very long, stay in the slammer.  Freddie takes both of the doctors’ experimental formulas instead of just one and promptly becomes invisible—which, of course, makes it easy for him to escape.  

This send-up of the tobacco industry is high comedy.  The research that renders Freddie invisible is funded by the American Tobacco Research Institute in its continuing efforts “to come up with anything and everything that might help in the human race’s battle against the scourge of cancer, except, of course, further evidence that might recommend the giving up of the smoking of cigarettes.”  And since an invisible man would make a wonderful spy, the race is soon underway by tobacco-company flunkies to find Freddie Noon.

As in most satire, a lot of the humor here derives from caricature. There’s Mordon Leethe, the aging tobacco-company lawyer who’s spent most of his life trying not to think about the implications of his work; Loomis and Heimhocker, who avoid thinking about the ethical implications of their research as long as the funding keeps rolling in;  Barney Beuler, the crooked NYPD cop who manages to stay a step or two ahead of Internal Affairs while looking after his own interests;  Jersey Josh Kuskiosko, the lecherous and double-crossing fence who gets his comeuppance, several times, from an invisible Freddie; and Jack Fullerton the Fourth, the tobacco empire CEO who’s dying of emphysema but manages to light up a cigarette despite the oxygen tube in his nose.   Finally, there’s Jack Fullerton’s successor, Merrill Fullerton, who has a brilliant plan to keep himself in business:  “‘We’ve spent the last forty years,’ he said, ‘trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race, and we’ve failed.  We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!’”

Once the reader grants the impossible premise—that a person could be made invisible—everything else follows logically and humorously.  Loomis and Heimhocker, in their research involving skin pigmentation, have developed two separate formulas.  They’ve experimented by giving each formula to one of their cats, and two translucent cats now wander around their building.   The researchers know they need to do human testing, but they balk at using the formulas on themselves;  after all, “how could a translucent scientist hope to be taken seriously in the medical journals?”

But what raises Smoke above the level of a mere comic romp is the developing relationship between the two main characters, Freddie and his girlfriend, Peg Briscoe.   Peg freaks out—understandably—the first night that the invisible Freddie crawls into bed next to her.  And it’s not easy living with an invisible man—just think about it.  You can never be sure where he is and whether he’s watching  you.  (Peg can see Freddie only when he’s fully clothed and wearing pink Playtex gloves and one of the masks—Freddie prefers Bart Simpson—Peg gets for him at a costume supplier.)  And you can’t do simple things that normal people do like go out to dinner together.  But when Peg is in danger, Freddie, who could easily just disappear, puts himself at risk to rescue her.  As Peg explains to Freddie’s mother (and to the lurking Freddie) at book’s end,  “‘It took me a while to adjust, but it’s gonna be okay now.  He came and helped me when I was in trouble, and he didn’t have to, and I realize we need each other, we’ve got to be together.’”

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Run Before the Wind” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Run Before the Wind (1983)  
rpt. 1988; Avon, 310 pages, $6.50 paperback  
ISBN 0 380 70507 9

In Run Before the Wind Stuart Woods picks up the Lee family from his first novel, Chiefs. Will Lee, the spoiled, restless son of politician Billy Lee and his wife Patricia, is finishing his second year at the University of Georgia Law School when he lands in a spot of trouble. The dean of the law school thinks that Will is not truly committed to school or the legal profession and sends him off on a year’s leave of absence to discover what he wants to do with his life.

Will heads off to Ireland to visit his grandfather, intending to go on from there to a year of traveling around Europe. But his plans change when he meets Mark and Annie Pemberton-Robinson. Mark, a former officer in the Royal Marines who was severely wounded in Belfast, is now obsessed with building a state-of-the-art yacht. When the reclusive international entrepreneur Derek Thrasher mysteriously appears on the scene and agrees to finance the project, Mark and Annie convince Will to sign on.

Will Lee spends the next year and a half on a voyage of self-discovery that involves financial intrigue, international terrorism, personal loyalty and commitment, love, lust, betrayal, and courage. Run Before the Wind is another page-turner from a master storyteller.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Baby, Would I Lie?” by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake, Donald E. Baby, Would I Lie? (1994)  
Mysterious Press 291 pages $19.95  hardcover  
ISBN  0-89296-532-0

Singer Ray Jones has his own theater on traffic-jam strip in Branson, Missouri, new center of country-and-western music.  And Branson traffic is about to become even more congested than usual as reporters from everywhere pour in to cover Ray Jones’s trial for the murder of a former employee.  Among them are Sara Joslyn, girl reporter for New York City’s Trend: The Magazine for the Way We Live This Instant, and her editor, Jack Ingersoll.

Sara is tickled pink to be the only reporter invited to join Ray Jones’s entourage.  While she covers the trial, Jack works on a parallel story about the unethical—not to mention illegal—methods used by the tabloid Weekly Galaxy to get the scoop on the trial. In the end Sara gets even more of a story than she bargained for when she discovers why good ol’ boy Ray singled her out to be a member of his group.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Point of Origin” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Point of Origin (1998)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 356 pages, $25.95 hardcover   
ISBN 0 399 14394 7

I’m getting really sick of Kay Scarpetta. At least in Patricia Cornwell’s earlier novels Scarpetta waited until the plot began to develop before beginning her self-centered, self-righteous lamentations. But in Point of Origin Scarpetta starts whining at the beginning of the book and continues until the end; in the interim, not much else happens.

Scarpetta’s latest misadventure finds her involved in a series of arson fires apparently set to conceal homicides. Meanwhile, psychopath Carrie Grethen, nemesis of both Kay Scarpetta and her niece Lucy, escapes from a prison for the insane; both Kay and Lucy know that Carrie will come after them seeking revenge.

Oh, did I mention that Lucy, having left the FBI, is now a crack helicopter pilot for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms? Lucy’s new talent recalls the beginning of Cause of Death, in which we learn that Kay Scarpetta, in addition to being a lawyer and a physician, is also a certified SCUBA diver. Patricia Cornwell must think that stunning revelations such as these constitute character development.

Point of Origin does contain one shocking development in Kay Scarpetta’s life, but other than that there isn’t much story line at all. Apparently Patricia Cornwell and Dr. Kay Scarpetta both need a break from each other.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Chiefs” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Chiefs (1981)   
Avon Books, 427 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN 0 380 70347 5

Recommended

One benefit to discovering a prolific author with one of his later works is that you then have the pleasure of going back and reading all his earlier books as well.  I first discovered Stuart Woods in 1996 with Under the Lake (1987) and Choke (1995). In reading Chiefs, his first novel, I’m reminded of what makes Woods such a compelling writer: he is a consummate storyteller who combines compelling characters with interesting plots to create books that are as intriguing as they are believable.

Chiefs tells the story of three police chiefs in the rural town of Delano, Georgia. Book One presents the story of Will Henry Lee, who leaves his unprofitable farm to become Delano’s first police chief in 1919. In Book Two we meet Sonny Butts, who is hired as a Delano police officer in 1946 during the effort to provide veterans with civilian jobs. In Book Three Tucker Watts becomes the town’s first black police chief in 1962 after retiring from a military career.

Several threads unify this story, which covers more than 40 years. First, there’s the town itself, which we watch grow. Second, several characters appear throughout the book, most notably Hugh Holmes, the town banker and one of the original founders of Delano, and Billy Lee, son of Will Henry Lee. Finally, there’s a recurring mystery that occupies all three of the police chiefs in this fine first novel. 

Chiefs, Woods’ first novel, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award and established him as a novelist.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Unnatural Exposure” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Unnatural Exposure (1997)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 338 pages, $25.95 hardcover   
ISBN 0 399 14285 1

After Cornwell’s two recent disasters, Cause of Death and Hornet’s Nest, I approached Unnatural Exposure with trepidation. Dr. Kay Scarpetta returns in a novel that doesn’t exhibit Hornet’s Nest’s lack of focus but that does, like Cause of Death, suffer from plotting problems.

When a human torso is discovered in a landfill in Virginia, Dr. Scarpetta joins the search for a serial killer that had begun several years earlier in Europe. Soon Dr. Scarpetta realizes that, instead of only a serial killer, she may be hunting a psychopath planning to unleash a deadly epidemic on the population. The search becomes more personal when Kay begins receiving photos of the victims over America Online from someone using the screen name deadoc.

The plot inconsistencies arise from the way Dr. Scarpetta reacts to the epidemic threat. When a victim dies on an island off the coast of Virginia, she insists that the island be quarantined; yet she shows no overt concern for the health of the elderly local doctor who treated the patient and reported the death. Later, after Scarpetta has spent some time in a government maximum-quarantine facility and been released, she develops flu-like symptoms. She insists that she’s just coming down with the flu and goes about her business when, in fact, she of all people should be back knocking on the hospital door insisting to be let back in.

The final plot weakness of this novel is the denouement. Don’t even try to figure out ahead of time who the villain is. The ending comes out of nowhere, with no preparation.

And I keep hoping that Scarpetta will change at least a little, that she’ll mellow a bit and become a better human being. But in Unnatural Exposure she’s back at her characteristic rotten treatment of Pete Marino. 

When Kay finds the first photo from deadoc on AOL, she’s terrified. She immediately calls Marino, and he comes right over, arriving at “almost midnight.” He goes into her home office to look at her computer screen:

His eyes were fastened to the screen, and he adjusted my chair. Then his big feet shoved books on the floor as he made himself comfortable. When he picked up files and moved them to another corner of my desk, I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“I have things where I want them,” I pointedly said as I returned the files to their original messy space.

“Hey, chill out, Doc,” he said as if it didn’t matter. “How do we know that this thing ain’t a hoax?”

Again, he moved the files out of his way, and now I was really irritated.

“Marino, you’re going to have to get up,” I said. “I don’t let anybody sit at my desk. You’re making me crazy.”

He shot me an angry look and got up out of my chair. “Hey, do me a favor. Next time call somebody else when you got a problem.”

“Try to be sensitive . . .”

He cut me off, losing his temper. “No. You be sensitive and quit being such a friggin’ fussbudget.” (p. 38)

While Unnatural Exposure isn’t as good as Cornwell’s earliest novels, it’s definitely not as bad as the previous two. Let’s hope this trend continues.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Best Books I Read in 1997

Listed alphabetically by author

Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage

Atkinson, Kate. Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Byatt, A.S. Possession: A Romance

Dorris, Michael. A Yellow Raft in Blue Water

Finney, Jack. Time and Again

Gaines, Ernest J. A Lesson Before Dying

Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance

O’Connell, Carol. Stone Angel

Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres

Walker, Mary Willis. Under the Beetle’s Cellar


Honorable Mention

Duncan, David James. The Brothers K

Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars

Høeg, Peter. Smilla’s Sense of Snow

King, Laurie R. A Grave Talent

Mitchard, Jacquelyn. The Deep End of the Ocean

“The Night Crew” by John Sandford

Sandford, John. The Night Crew (1997)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 371 pages, $23.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14237 1

The action has moved from Minnesota to Los Angeles and the protagonist is a woman, but otherwise fans of John Sandford’s “Prey” series won’t notice much difference between the earlier novels and this one.

The main character here is Anna Batory, a Midwesterner trained as a concert pianist. Not quite good enough for a concert career, she’s come to Los Angeles, where she runs a group of freelance video journalists who roam the city streets at night in search of news stories to sell to local stations and the networks.

This book’s nonstop action begins right away, when the night crew videotapes an apparent suicide, a young man jumping from a building. Then the photographer who shot the tape of the jumper washes ashore with a bullet hole in his head. The tough and resourceful Anna soon suspects that the killer is after her. The pace never lets up as she relentlessly pursues him before he can get to her.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Sudden Prey” by John Sandford

Sandford, John. Sudden Prey (1996)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 360 pages, $23.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14138 3

On the trail of bank robbers Candy LaChaise and her sister-in-law Georgie, police have staked out the Credit Union they think the duo will hit next. When Candy cold-bloodedly shoots a man inside the Credit Union on her way out with the loot, a shootout ensues in which both Candy and Georgie are killed.

Weather joins the public outcries about police brutality, a police setup:

“Lucas,” [Weather] interrupted. “I know how your mind works. TV said these people had been under surveillance for nine days. I can feel you manipulating them into a robbery. I don’t know if you know, but I know it.” (p. 21)

When Dick LaChaise—husband of Candy and brother of Georgie—is brought to the funeral home for the two women’s funerals, he slits the throat of the marshal escorting him and escapes. LaChaise’s mother vows that Dick will seek vengeance, “an eye for an eye.” 

Soon the spouses of two police officers are attacked and murdered, and Davenport fears that LaChaise is making good on his mother’s prediction. Furthermore, Davenport suspects that a crooked cop is feeding information to LaChaise. If Davenport doesn’t find the killers, Weather and his daughter Sarah could be the next victims.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Mind Prey” by John Sandford

Sandford, John. Mind Prey (1995)
Berkley, 354 pages, $6.99 paperback 
ISBN 0 425 15289 8

Mind Prey opens with a memorable simile: “The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled up sweat socks spilling from a basket” (p. 1). Soon Andi Manette, a psychiatrist, and her two young daughters (Genevieve, age nine, and Grace, age twelve) are kidnapped from the parking lot of the girls’ school during the rainstorm. Since Andi and her husband, George Dunn, are in the process of getting a divorce, Dunn becomes a prime suspect. 

When the kidnapper begins calling Davenport on his cell phone to give him clues, Lucas realizes the kidnapper must also be involved with computer games. With the help of his childhood friend Elle Kruger, now Sister Mary Joseph, Lucas unravels the clues.

Lucas spends this entire book carrying around an engagement ring.  He’s got it bad:

Weather was not pretty, but she reached him with a power he hadn’t experienced before: His attraction had grown so strong that it scared him at times. He’d lie awake at night, watching her sleep, inventing nightmares in which she left him. (p. 52)

And Weather seems to be changing Lucas:  “He kept the ring in the bottom of his sock drawer, waiting for the right moment. He could feel it there and wondered if it made black sparkles in the dark” (p. 52).  This is downright poetic, not a thought the earlier Lucas would have had.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown