Donald Westlake is a famous crime novelist probably most known for his series of novels about relentless professional thief, Parker, written under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Westlake is also well known for his comic heist novels about charming master thief John Dortmunder. Parker debuted in The Hunter in 1962 and Dortmunder debuted in The Hot Rock in 1970.
In 1995, Westlake took a break from straight up crime novels and wrote a comedic crime novel with sci-fi elements called Smoke.
I was aware of Westlake before I discovered Smoke when researching “invisible man novels” for this Halloween. I’d seen the movies based on Westlake’s “Parker” character (Payback in 1999 and Parker in 2013) and I’ve had my eye on the first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock, for a few years now. So, I thought Smoke would be a great opportunity to read Westlake to see if I like his style before committing to either the Parker or Dortmunder novels.
The gist of the story is that Freddie Noon, a small time thief burgles a research lab late one night and is caught by the two research scientists that live there. They are testing two melanoma formulas and they blackmail him into testing one of them. Freddie mistakenly takes both formulas and then escapes the research lab and makes off with a bunch of the doctors’ equipment. Later, Freddie discovers that the formula has turned him completely invisible. Freddie, along with his girlfriend Peg, has to get used to him being invisible, attempt to continue stealing and fencing goods in his new condition and stay one step ahead of the shady organization that had employed the research lab in the first place who want nothing but to exploit Freddie for their own gain.
This book is sort of a spiritual cousin to HF Saint’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man which was published about 7 years prior to this. Similar plot lines, only a few details are different, but the tone of the books are completely different. Saint’s book is a taut suspense thriller from beginning to end. Westlake’s book is a comic caper with a very light, humorous tone. The characters are funny and interesting for the most part, but I prefer Saint’s edge of your seat thrill ride to Westlake’s easy going pace.
I’d mostly recommend this book, but if I’m picking my favorite, HF Saint’s Memoirs is a much more satisfying read.
Also, check out the blog Countdown to Halloween for more Halloween-y, bloggy AWESOMEness.