Posted: May 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

Not saying anything particularly revelatory here, but I’m continually astonished by how many mediocre writers hit the jackpot these days while really terrific ones are all but dismissed and forgotten. Oddly the case with most of my favorite authors. Is it just me?

The only thing maybe worse that a great writer like Mitchell Smith completely falling off the map is the idea he may still be out there somewhere cloaked under a pseudonym, and I can’t find him. I’m especially sensitive to this idea in Smith’s case having recently discovered he began his writing career under a non de plume: a series of Western paperback originals from one of the, shall we say, less reputable houses (I should know, having begun my own career with them). Is it cricket to mention a series of books an author purposely chose to remain estranged from? I don’t know; even a clearly exploitative title in the hands of a master can bear rewards.

Anyway, we’re here to discuss Smith’s mainstream era thrillers, DAYDREAMS, STONE CITY, DUE NORTH, SACRIFICE, REPRISAL and particularly KARMA, probably my personal favorite—though I hesitate to categorize them as mere thrillers, especially DUE NORTH which, like the others, has its thrills but is so much more than that. They say Richard Matheson was a mainstream writer masquerading as a horror/sci-fi writer; I’m guessing Mitchell Smith was a mainstream writer masquerading as a thriller writer. Certainly if the line can be blurred between the two, Smith did it brilliantly. His big push began with the police procedural-oriented DAYDREAMS, followed by the claustrophobically-male prison epic STONE CITY, both generally considered his best and most literary offerings. I think this is giving short shrift to his later, more overtly genre pieces like SACRIFICE and REPRISAL. Finely crafted, exceptionally well written with a style I can only describe as uniquely his own, all of Smith’s titles bear his emblematic signature prose, at times an almost musical leitmotif that, when juxtaposed with passages of violent action, border on the poetic—but somehow, amazingly (damn him!) drawing us in rather than distancing us from the narrative. No mean feat. Yet we never doubt we’re in the hand of a confident master.

KARMA’s handsome, blue-blooded architect Evan Scott witnesses the 70 story falling death of a young woman from an in-construction Madison Avenue edifice. Or was she pushed? When others around Scott meet similarly unexpected ends he soon learns his witnessing the girl’s fall has put his own life, and eventually those of his Greenwich, Connecticut family, at dire risk. This in the form of Rao Electrical, a company with a multimillion-dollar wiring contact for the building and secrets they’d just as soon keep hidden. They’re doing a good job so far; even the fallen girl’s construction foreman father hides fearfully silent behind the truth of her death. And Evan gets a particularly unnerving warning from a Hindustani NYPD Detective Prasad, who should know what he’s talking about when not too subtly suggesting the inquiring young architect keep his ivy league nose out of things. Rao Electric plays tough: “..we think they use a Pathan—a Dond savage…a mountain people; they are not minding heights at all, if you catch my drift.”

Evan might have listened, too, had one of the mysterious deaths not included his coworker/Hispanic lover Sanchia Fuentes. Ignoring the obvious warning, Evan pursues the brutal Rao brothers, a powerful Hindu crime family even the Mafia fears. He finds help in the only person who doesn’t think he’s crazy, elderly newsstand owner Ram Das Lal, whose nicely delineated appearance eventually forms what becomes essentially a buddy-picture. Deliberately paced at the beginning to reveal both Evan’s current home life and past Vietnam skirmishes (Kirkus, who is always wrong, accuses Smith unable of deciding if he’s writing a post-traumatic war pastiche or a vulnerable loner thriller—duh!—he’s writing both) the thrills and action ratchet up soon enough along with a host of wonderfully realized characters, especially Evan’s Indian pal Das, who nearly steals the show. Not to be outdone, the baddies are as repugnant as spoiled curry, especially the Rao’s imported goon, the Pathan Dond.  A long-bearded, sword-wielding psychotic, the Dond thinks no more of table-leg raping and strangling Evan’s secret lover in her own bed than he does of disemboweling a group of subway toughs in broad New York City daylight.

With a prose style rife with frags, disruptive ellipses and occasional not-quite-purple passages, Smith’s mesmeric, deceivingly languid style closes the circle of terror around both Evan and reader with unnerving skill and bravado. It’s on full display during Evan’s witness of the iron worker’s fatal fall near the novel’s opening:

(Evan) looked out over the wall, looked up—expecting some workman waving across the way—looked up and saw through soft, richly golden light, a girl come falling.

She fell from far higher, out from the red steel skeleton of the building in progress—not more than yards away across empty air.

Evan heard her call again…something. Only a startled exclamation—certainly not a scream, not a shriek as she fell. And he saw her, and she saw him watching as she fell so seemingly slowly, lying spread-eagled in the air, wearing a tool belt, work clothes—jeans, shirt—all softly beaten by the air, and her long black hair bannering out, ruffling in the wind of descent so Evan heard it through the silence.

The book predicts our current phobia of foreign terrorists more than half a decade before 9/11, though when written it was probably more a metaphor for ‘70’s big business developers ravaging NY. Some may read bias bordering jingoism in Smith’s subtest. Evan is an unapologetic WASP war hero haunted by Vietnam dreams, his Aryan wife Catherine a privileged snob who, in the book’s explosive finale, wielding a shotgun to defend hearth and home against foreign invaders, is found “standing high at the end of the deck as faint gunsmoke drifted, her blond hair frosted white in moonlight, standing with the full moon behind her—a northern goddess, and grim.”

Still, Smith smooths any outright bigotry with the appearance of the Hispanic Fuentes and, more pointedly, in the wonderful Hindustani Ram Das whom Evan regards at novel’s end as his dearest friend. Walking New York streets together, Das, worried that the invasion of so many foreigners is taking its crowding toll on the Yale, Groton’s native soil, is reminded by a worldly-minded Evan: “The city was made by foreigners.” True enough. But Smith makes it sound just short of a warning.

Hidden agendas or not, there’s no denying the power of Smith’s story-telling during scenes both thoughtfully introspective and savagely, almost uncomfortably real. It’s not even the outward threat of foreign gangsters that provides Evan’s biggest nightmares, but the doubting indifference of associates and family around him. Where’s the real enemy here–self-assured American complacency and arrogance? Is the most obvious metaphor Evan Scott himself, the disillusioned lonely big city dweller hiding in plain sight? Clearly the war has left its scars and scares enfolded deep–going off to one thankless war only to return home to another kind of battlefield in its own way just as bafflingly isolated.

War in all its deceiving faces, though only shown in brief flashbacks, permeates the book as a constant, lurking menace. Early on, we’re shown Evan coveting dead Marine buddy Beckwith’s bowie knife, kept ever sharp and oiled in loving memory back in Evan’s civilian life. And in dark contrast, we see the demonic Dond’s lethal sword, dispatching the subway toughs with near psychotic detachment. We just know, as events unfold, these gleaming weapons are destined to meet in an analogous war from which only one can emerge.  When it finally comes, Smith’s vertiginous stage is the unfinished lattice of narrow I-beams wrapping Evan’s own workplace, high amid the darkened canyons of NY. It’s one of the book’s defining and perhaps most memorable moments: a clash of cultures and mindsets that in its fury morphs the flailing combatants into a near balletic death dance that turns all soldiers into borderless brothers. Evan’s first glimpse of the Pathan is like an explosively evil apparition of Chernabog himself:

Something was running toward him over the steel. Huge, oddly shaped, and galloping with a long cloth coat swept back by its speed—looking barely human in moonlight, its head thrown back in a great grin of pleasure, long moon-silvered beard, long hair fallen loose and streaming behind it…this man came running barefoot over the steel as if there were no spaces, no emptiness, as if sparse structures were solid flooring all across. There was no sound but the eager padding of his feet, their swift rhythm humming through the steel.

Running away like a terrified child against such indomitable fierceness, Evan finds soon enough that the Dond savage is far swifter, and his shrieking saber a good deal longer than the Bowie war memento the young architect brought along for comfort. When the Pathan’s blade finally descends:

–Evan was saved by Beckwith’s knife and what was left of college fencing, and by twenty years of polo. Born and built for this, the Bowie hooked the Pathan’s blade as it came, turned it just enough, and carried it clanging away. And Evan’s right hand and arm and shoulder—packed with muscle from years of swinging a mallet whipping left and right from a galloping pony—his hand and arm and shoulder parried, and took the shock.

The Dond stood back and relaxed, a bird of prey at ease, and stared at Evan considering, while they both breathed. The two of them were alone in the world; there was no world beside the narrow beam they fought on, nothing beyond the striking circle of their knives. They had become as close as friends, and knew each other.

Do yourself a solid and know this book.

And the poetic prowess of very cutting edge action/suspense Mitchell Smith-style.


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