Originally published in 1971.
We are introduced to a young man as he literally drops on to the balcony of an unknown pretty young woman. Bill Smith was doing quite all right as a successful sales executive until he happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and overheard a conversation he shouldn’t have. But Bill Smith didn’t know that. All he knew, with growing certitude, was that someone wanted him dead. It was fortunate that the girl on whose balcony Bill Smith landed believed his story for with her help he was able to devise an ingenious plot to evade his pursuers – permanently. And then, on the brink of success, he found he had to do a lot of accounting he hadn’t bargained for…
Not the least part of the entertainment of this lively suspense story is Andrew Garve’s description of a guided tour to Greece.
Sue Hammond is relaxing in her flat one evening when a young man with a bloodied face drops down onto her balcony and asks for her help. She is understandably wary of the stranger but listens to his story as he tells her that he has been chased by a couple of men who he believes were intending to kill him.
The stranger is Bill Smith, a salesman for a steel manufacturer. He explains that this is not the first attempt there has been on his life, though he has no idea why his life should be in danger. When Bill learns that Sue works for a tour agency and is about to leave on a cruise to Greece, he proposes that he join the tour as a way of putting some distance between himself and his problems. She agrees, making the arrangements.
Given the comparatively brief length of this work, I don’t intend to go into much detail beyond this initial setup – to do so risks spoiling too much of the story (the blurb I quote above gives away far more than I would ordinary like to). What I do feel able to say is that the bulk of the story concerns Smith’s attempts to decide what to do next and the fallout from the decision he takes.
The Late Bill Smith is a work of suspense – there’s no prospect of deducing the answer to the mystery of why anyone would want to kill Bill – the reader may guess at it but the evidence is only presented a page or two before the solution is presented to them. Nor are any of Bill’s actions particularly unexpected. Even if the reader has skipped over the blurb, the solution to his problem seems obvious from the start – the reader will just have to wait for it to occur to him.
Instead this story unfolds in a way that puts me in mind of romantic suspense films like Charade and North by Northwest. We have a couple who are in a relatively far-fetched situation that are clearly attracted to one another but where there is some level of distrust. While the reader will hopefully be interested in the mystery of the problem that Bill is trying to solve, that romantic strand of the story is more of the focus. The book’s dramatic moments and decisions are concerned with that relationship rather than the action or solving that problem.
How satisfying you find that approach will depend a lot on how much you like the two lead characters and want them to end up together. For my part, I rather liked Sue who is practical and level-headed but I felt that she is a little passive – she is there to be a sounding-board for Bill and to react to his ideas.
Bill is a more dynamic figure, benefitting a little from the mystery around his background. He gets to exert his agency at several points, making decisions that shift the course of the story and also present him in an increasingly heroic light. While his feelings for Sue also seem to suddenly appear, I felt it fit with the character’s more impulsive nature. It probably didn’t hurt either that I had no difficulty imagining him as sort of Roger Thornhill-type complete with a breezy, mid-Atlantic style of speech, even if the character physically doesn’t resemble Grant.
It’s a scenario that offers a lot of promise but I think the execution isn’t quite there. That relationship has moments of charm but unfortunately we just don’t get enough of it. While we get some fun moments at the start and end of the book, the pair do not interact much in the midsection of the story. That’s necessary for an aspect of the plot but it was still a little unsatisfactory for me. I wished that she could have played a little more of a role in the mid-section of the novel and that we could have got to see her feelings for Bill develop a little more slowly. I would suggest that we are told that she falls in love with him rather than get to observe it take place.
Returning to the thriller aspects of the story, I think there is some interesting material here. The work is reflective of the period in which it is written which added some interest for me reading it fifty years after it was first published. The solution to why Bill is in danger is not unexpected, even if it is not really clued, but I enjoyed seeing what happened and, in particular, the final chapters in which the problem is resolved. Expect that the thrills will be decidedly low-key though as there is not much in the way of action to be found here with the emphasis falling on the romance.
I couldn’t help but think as I closed the book that while it was an entertaining, light read, that this was a story that felt more appropriate for the big screen than for the printed page. Aspects of that solution could have been suggested visually much earlier in the story than they are in the text where those elements immediately stand out and the development of that key relationship could have been inferred in looks shared, even when they are not talking directly.
Still, while I think The Late Bill Smith is a rather slight read, it was nonetheless an enjoyable one. It’s not nearly as interesting a read as my last Garve (The File on Lester) but it is a quick and undemanding read. Exactly the sort of thing I was looking for as we rang in the New Year. Speaking of which, I hope everyone who reads this had a good New Year and I wish you all the best for the year to come!
The Verdict: An undemanding but highly readable light thriller with an emphasis on a romance. A diverting but minor work.
Have you read anything by Paul Winterton (who wrote as Roger Bax, Paul Somers and Andrew Garve)? Are there any titles you would recommend for my next one?