Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Donald Westlake is near the top of my list of favorite authors. This prolific writer wrote a few dozen mystery-crime novels, many of them comic, some of them so deadly serious the only smile you may crack is for the sheer joy of reading his prose. But then, prose is how he made his living. He interrupted his novel writing for the occasional screenplay, like the adaptation of the Jim Thompson novel, The Grifters, or the original story, The Stepfather. You wonder why he didn't just camp out in Hollywood and earn the big bucks whoring to movie studios. That just wasn't Westlake, who spent his time writing successful novels on his portable manual typewriter. No fan of electric typewriters, word processors or the computer, he banged his stories out the old fashioned way.

In the 1993 novel, Smoke, the characters are funny and so is the plot. Freddie Noon, burglar, breaks into a research laboratory to steal what he can. The lab is funded by a tobacco group. The doctors who own it are working on a vaccine, a cure for melanoma, which so far has only been tested on cats. It makes them translucent. The doctors catch Freddie burgling them, then use him as an unwilling guinea pig. They inject him with the vaccine. Freddie escapes, but wakes up the next morning invisible.

In a memorable scene early on, we're introduced to a tobacco company lawyer with the Dickens-like name of Mordon Leethe. In Westlake fashion he is described vividly in only a few paragraphs:
To be a tobacco company lawyer is to know something of the darkness of the human heart. Little surprised Mordon Leethe, nothing shocked him, not much intrestested him, and there was nothing in life he loved, including himself.

A stocky heavy-shouldered man of fifty-six, Mordon Leethe had been a skinny six foot two when he'd played basketball all those years ago at Uxtover Prep, but caution and skepticism had worked on him like a heavy planet's gravity, compressing him to his current five foot ten, none of it muscle but all of it hard anyway, with tension and rage and disdain.

Mordon was going over the PAC regularions regarding corporate donations to political campaigns--he loved Congress; hookers defining how they'll agree to be fucked--when the phone rang. He picked it up, made a low sound like a warthog, and the voice of his secretary, Helen, a nice maternal woman lost in these offices, said in his ear, "Dr. Amory on two. R&D."

Helen was a good secretary. She knew her boss could not possibly keep in his mind the name and title of every person listed in his Rolodex, so whenever someone he wasn't used to was on the line, Helen would identify the caller when announcing the call. By just now saying, "R&D," she'd jogged Mordon Leethe's memory, reminding him that Dr. Archer Amory was head of NAABOR's research and development program, a three-pronged project that attempted to (1) prove that all proof concerning the health dangers of cigarette consumption is unproved; (2) find some other use for tobacco--insulation? optical fibers?--should worse come to worst; and (3) prepare for a potential retooling to marijuana, should that market ever open up.

Which of the R&D lines had led Dr. Archer to call an attorney? All Mordon Leethe knew was the equation: Doctor = bad news. Shrinking, condensing yet another tiny millimeter, he punched "2" without acknowledging Helen's words, and said,
"'Morning, Doctor. How are things in the lab?"

"Well, the mice are still dying," said a hearty brandy-and-golf voice.

"I know that joke," Mordon said sourly. "The elephants are still alive, but they're coughing like hell."

"Really? That's a new one.Very funny."

It was really a very old one. Mordon said, "What is it today, Doctor?"

"You're going to be getting a visit from two of our independent-contractor researchers."

"Am I."

"Their names are --""Wait."Mordon drew toward himself today's yellow pad, flipped to a new page, picked up his Mont Blanc Agatha Christie pen with the ruby-eyed snake on its clip, and said, "Now."

"Their names are Dr. David Loomis and Dr. Peter Heimhocker, and they--""Spell."

Amory spelled, then said, "I want to emphasize, these two are not employees of my division, nor in fact employees of NAABOR at all. They're independent contractors."

This is something very bad, Mordon, thought. He said, "And what's their problem?"

"I'd rather they told you that themselves. When today would be a good time to see them?"

Very, very bad. Mordon looked at his calendar. "Three o'clock," he said."Do keep me informed," Archer Amory said.

Fat chance. "Of course," Mordon said, and dropped the phone like a dead rat into its cradle.

The book is full of moments like that. Smoke is a very entertaining story of an invisible burglar and those chasing him.

Westlake died in late 2008 at age 75, succumbing to a sudden heart attack while on vacation in Mexico with his wife. I imagine him writing a scene featuring such a death, and in his inimitable way making it funny. That was the kind of writer he was.

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