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The Smoke

Tony Broadbent

Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-312-29027-6

Publication Date: September, 2002

302 Pages; $23.95

Date Reviewed: October 7, 2003

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2003




I have no recollection of when or why I bought this book. It just turned up, shelved with all my other yet-to-be-read books, a nicely wrapped, signed first edition, it's path-to-shelf a complete mystery. But of course, it is a mystery, a first mystery by new author Tony Broadbent, and a surprisingly good one.

'The Smoke' is slang for London, in this case, post-war London, where the scarcity of basic necessities is far worse than it ever was during wartime. The only ones who get by are those willing to bend the rules, shop the black market, and engage in a bit of larceny. Jethro, protagonist of 'The Smoke' is a man perfectly suited for the times. He's a cat burglar and jewel thief, a "gifted irregular", one of the best in London. His stint in the Merchant Navy taught him the ins and outs of shipboard life, skills he put to good, though not legal, use working - well, burglaring - cruise ships as he toured the world. Now back in London, his mark is a communist foreign embassy with its cache of fine diamond jewelry. Jethro steals only the best.

Jethro pulls off the embassy heist, with a little more excitement and complexity than he bargained for, only to be blackmailed by M15 into a repeat performance to trap a notorious thief and spy and rescue a vulnerable defector. The defector is, of course, a beautiful woman.

If 'The Smoke' were simply the story of Jethro and his tension-filled heists, it would be a cool caper novel, well done and absorbing. But along with the heists is the equally compelling, and more unusual, story of the underside of post war London, with its social disarray, competing crime bosses and underworld power players. Broadbent expertly enriches the classic caper story with his finely detailed London settings, a well-portrayed sense of the social and economic climate, and a broad cast of expertly drawn characters. Broadbent's Jethro is a non-violent "creeper" with street-wise smarts, sensitivity and an engaging insouciance. His fence and mentor is a dual-sided man, Ray Karmin, gentleman scholar, aka "Buggy Billy", part time street merchant. Soho's crime lord Darby Messima, and his devious aide "Chalky White" want Jethro to work for them. Equally fearsome crime lords Jack Spot and Billy Hill also want Jethro's loyalty. And M15 has its own job for Jethro, and its own unique ways of insuring compliance. Jethro, a clever and cunning loner, must weave his way among multiple unsavory characters and conflicting agendas, where any misstep can be painful or deadly.

Broadbent's pacing matches his narrative - the speed and tension of the heist scenes gives way to a slower, gloomy agita in the crime lord confrontations. And 'The Smoke', London itself, with its shadowy light, meandering winding streets and foggy, mysterious atmosphere, enhances all.

Broadbent writes in the familiar first person, with a conversational, slang-laden style that enlivens and enriches his narrative. Although he kindly provides a glossary of Cockney slang, it's not wholly necessary, since Jethro's narration is quite comprehensible without it. The book reads like a long and involving pub-conversation with a lively, cheeky storyteller. It's great fun.

'The Smoke' suffers from a few first-novel lapses - a couple of unlikely coincidences that propel the plot and one noticeably abandoned thread. The beautiful defector, with whom Jethro is thoroughly taken, simply disappears from the story. These are minor foibles, however. 'The Smoke' is an amusing, enthralling first novel - a caper with all the expected suspense, enriched by a superior setting and an engrossing social sub-story.