The Smoke in Our Eyes

  • By James Grady
  • Pegasus Crime
  • 384 pp.

A noirish glimpse of 1950s America through the eyes of a young boy.

The Smoke in Our Eyes

James Grady’s new novel, The Smoke in Our Eyes, is a far cry from his iconic Six Days of the Condor, with its espionage and double-crossing. It’s apparent the author, along with his work, has evolved. His latest offering is still something of a crime thriller, yes, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale told through the eyes of 10-year-old Lucas Ross, as well as an ode to a time long past.

It’s 1959, and the Ross family lives in Vernon, Montana. Father Don is a manager at a local trucking company. The company is family-owned — though not by the Rosses — and when the owner’s daughter marries a man who seems destined to grab the business’ reins, a dark cloud descends over Don. His wife, Cora, is one-third of the Conner sisters, women whose life paths diverge but who always seem to be present when something important happens in town.

Don and Cora’s teenage daughter, Laura, wants nothing but to get out of that town. She desperately needs a scholarship to fulfill her dream, but her chances are threatened when her reputation is called into question after she witnesses a car accident. One of the two teen boys involved in it dies, while the other endures survivor’s guilt.

All these plots and quandaries come to the reader via fifth-grader Lucas, who happens to be experiencing his own growing pains. He must accept the fact that the glasses he needs (which are anything but fashionable) will make him the target of bullies. And he’s hopelessly smitten with his new teacher, Miss Smith. She’s a breath of fresh air — possibly an intoxicating one — who gets more than she bargained for when she came to this rural, conservative place.

Speaking of the small town, it may be fictional, but Grady presents it with great skill:

“Vernon spread out below them. The car turned around. The road swept down the hill past weathered houses. Past the tan brick high school and Lucas’s Blackhawk Elementary School. The street dead-ended at the east-west highway, and beyond that, the railroad tracks. Three indigo crags chiseled from the vast blue sky ruled the northern horizon: the Buffalo Hills, geologies too slight to be called mountains in this vast geography where sixty miles away, the sawtooth peaks of the Rocky Mountains cut the western skyline. The Buffalo Hills sat almost thirty miles beyond the town. Another ten miles of prairie behind them was Canada.”

Beyond painting the landscape so effectively, the author pays close attention to period details unique to the 1950s: the early days of television, the rotary phones, the music on the radio, the cars, folks’ healthy dose of fear about communism taking over the country, and the overt patriotism — “The American flag swayed atop its steel pole in front of the hospital” — displayed in response to it.

Cigarettes, too, were a big part of mid-20th-century life, so it’s no surprise that a book called The Smoke in Our Eyes features a lot of, well, smoking. “The ember on the desk woman’s cigarette glowed red,” writes Grady. “Her beady eyes probed the intruders while Lucas’s heart slammed against his ribs.”

Because Lucas can only process events with a child’s insight, readers get to pick up on all the subtext he’s unable to grasp. It allows for a book-long (and entertaining) case study in reading between the lines, such as here:

“Mr. Denton watches birds,” said Lucas.
“What?” said Mom.
“Next door. Mr. Denton. He watches birds. With binoculars.”
Dad said: “The only thing Denton ever used for birds is his shotgun.”
“Well, he’s watching the north side for them now.”
Lucas couldn’t translate the glance his parents gave each other.
Mom said: “If you’ve finished your sandwich, go back to school.”

Still, like in any good bildungsroman, the young protagonist becomes savvier as he’s drawn into participating in events he’d previously only been witness to. More than a crime story — since very few crimes actually take place — The Smoke in Our Eyes is a love letter to simpler, bygone days when people’s sense of awe and wonder could be brought out more easily.

José H. Bográn is an international author of novels, short stories, and scripts for television and film. His genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw a twist of others into the mix. He is an independent editor and contributing writer to various publications. Find him on X, Facebook, and Instagram.

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