For a book set in Portland, Patrick Quinlan’s Smoked is striking for its near-total lack of Maine characters, other than a stereotypical old Mainer who runs a set of cabins for rent and some “well-dressed drunks” out on the town in the Old Port. Rather, Quinlan populates his crime-thriller/love story with people you’ve largely never seen around here.
The title character, Smoke Dugan, is a bomb-maker/safecracker from the rough streets of New York, here to escape an ugly past (he blew up buildings, but you can like him because no one ever got hurt) by making toys for “special” children. His girlfriend, Lola, is a black girl with a black belt from Chicago, here to escape an ugly past by teaching children. His enemies are Cruz, a small old bad guy who’s shot lots of people, and Moss, a big young bad guy who’s shot lots of people. They work for a guy named Big Vito, who, we’re told a couple of times, has a gravelly voice. There are also bad guys named Fingers (he’s missing three) and Sticks (he likes to stick things in people’s eyes). All the really bad guys are from New York and the life Smoke hoped to leave behind after he killed his boss and stole his money.
As for bad guys from Maine, you’ve got a couple of amateur pornographers from L/A who are fat and stupid, respectively, and thus, I suppose, recognizably from Maine.
Considering the violence Quinlan invokes, a murder spree that would be headline material in the Press Herald for about six months, the book begins to more closely resemble those Grand Theft Auto games than the hard-boiled Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet crime novels to which Quinlan seems to aspire. Portland is merely a location where Quinlan can comfortably move around his characters, making fun for the locals as they spot familiar landmarks. As far as the plot goes, what is essentially one long chase scene, it could have been set anywhere. Further, as with Grand Theft Auto, where we identify with the bad guys and become their alter egos, Quinlan asks us to be flexible with our morality.
Cruz? By the end of the book, you’re meant to like him — never mind the dozens of bodies in his past. Moss? Well, despite the fact that he’s never in too tight a spot to consider a quick raping, he’s more amiable pal than monster. The porn men? I think we’re supposed to sympathize with one of them when his best buddy is gutted and he has to bury him in the woods in a shallow grave. It’d be more likely if Quinlan hadn’t opened the book with an exposition on how the two men subjugate helpless women into being defiled on film.
Are we meant to learn a lesson about moral ambiguity, about how even bad guys have hearts and best friends forever? Perhaps that would be easier to swallow in a book that didn’t feature lines of dialogue like (actual line), “‘Aw shit,’ Hal said. ‘Fucking shit.’” Or (from the same page), “‘Uh,’ Darren said. ‘Uhn.’”