Signet, 2003 (2004 paperback reprint), 387 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-21278-9
After five conventional thrillers, it’s a welcome change of pace to see Kyle Mills try something new with Smoke Screen. After repeatedly tackling sweeping threats to the nation, he here dispenses with his established style to tackle an entirely different subject with a brand new storytelling mode and an unlikely hero.
At first glance, there isn’t much to distinguish Trevor Barnett from countless other men in their early thirties. Still stuck in a routine of dull low-level office work, weekend parties, attempts to find a girlfriend and prove to his parents that he’s worthy of their name, Barnett nonetheless has a few things going for him: For one thing, his entire life revolves around cigarettes. The family fortune was made on tobacco, and a twisted inheritance deal has him locked into tobacco-related jobs until retirement. In the early days of the twenty-first century, however, that’s not the kind of thing that he cares to share with others.
His break from routine comes when, in a drunken stupor, he summarizes a complex report to a blunt sentence and accidentally has that summary delivered to the board of directors. That’s when the CEO of the company he works for develops a liking to our narrator and puts him in charge of ever-more-challenging files. Before realizing it, Trevor becomes an unwilling spokesperson for the entire industry just as a complex power-play is put in action. Trevor soon will have enemies he didn’t even imagine it was possible to have.
One of Mills’ biggest strengths as a writer has always been his conceptual audacity. Whereas other writers will feature drug-fighting heroes, Mills would rather imagine the massive intentional poisoning a chunk of the drug supply and the reaction of the authorities deal with the fallout. In other novels, he imagines powerful cults not named Scientology, sends an FBI agent to become a master terrorist and supposes that Hoover’s secret files were still potent and around for the taking. This kind of risk-taking is also at the heart of Smoke Screen, which takes on a feel halfway between Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking in delivering a low-thrill thriller that still manages to keep readers hooked from beginning to end.
The tone alone is worth a mention. Trevor, from the very first few pages, is portrayed as someone for whom the tobacco industry has no secrets. He’s familiar with arguments for and against what he does, delivering color commentary at his TV as anti-tobacco advocates make their pitch. He knows that anti-smoking groups are largely financed by tobacco money; he understands how the government doesn’t really want to stop cigarettes tax revenue; he’s able to tie smoking to good old-fashioned American rights. More than anything, though, he’s tired of the whole debate and when he gets a public platform, honesty is his first policy.
There’s really only one scene of traditional guns-and-perils suspense in the entire novel, and it comes as a bit of an intrusion. Most of Smoke Screen’s fun is in following Trevor along as he tries to figure out whose pawn he is, and whether he can actually have an impact in the middle of his carefully scripted reactions. There’s a bit of romance to spice things up, but there’s also quite a bit of unusual thinking about smoking and what the social response to it should be. Mills is too smart to favour either stark pro/anti extremes, and his ultimate position is one that’s easy to respect. One could quibble with some aspects of the plotting (market forces would not allow such a national shortage!), but there’s a speculative aspect to the novel that’s worth suspending disbelief over.
But if Smoke Screen has a pleasant depth in term of ideas, it’s first and foremost a terrific read: Trevor is an engaging narrator, and his adventures are worth following even when they don’t involve mastermind terrorists or national conspiracies. In fact, I have no trouble calling Smoke Screen Mill’s most enjoyable novel yet: an original thriller that delivers a bit more than the compelling reading experience that we expect from genre entertainment. It’s rare enough to see writers stretch a bit outside their usual marketing boundaries: to see someone succeed at it is even better.