The first chapter of The Invisible World lays the foundation for what should be a cracking thriller. Reminiscent of film noir, the setting for the latest novel by John Smolens is a gloomy and very rainy Boston. Within the first few pages the author deftly arouses our interest by introducing the shadowy figure of John Adams, a man so ruthless he administers a drug to his dying wife to prevent her talking to a journalist about the “work” he did for the government. Unfortunately, the rest of the book falls short of expectations after a promising beginning.
Sam Adams, an out of work journalist, narrates the story, which is told entirely in the first person. For most of Sam’s life, his father John Adams has been away “working for the government” in some mysterious capacity. John Adams’ absence takes a harsh toll on his two children who both struggle with issues of abandonment. Sam has problems with alcohol, and his sister Abigail becomes a drug addict. For Sam, finding out why their father left them for long periods becomes an obsession and he begins to trace his father’s past movements. He eventually concludes that not only was John Adams implicated in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he was the true assassin, the gunman on the grassy knoll. When the book he writes detailing his findings is discredited by a scheming politician, Sam’s career as a journalist is essentially over.
Do not pick up The Invisible World thinking that the Kennedy assassination is central to the plot, because it isn’t. In essence, this is more a story of family and the unknowable side of the people to whom we should be closest.
The story begins with Sam’s mother dying of cancer in hospital. In the few moments that Sam is away from her room, she suddenly and inexplicably develops the symptoms of last stage dementia. A journalist, Petra Mouzakis, has been interviewing her about her husband and his connection to the Kennedy assassination. Sam’s suspicion that his father drugged his mother to prevent her disclosing any of his secrets is confirmed after her death by the autopsy results. Sam is further outraged when he learns that his father has taken her ashes. Once again he sets out to find the elusive John Adams.
The plot becomes convoluted, tangled up in conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. Characters are introduced whose motivations and allegiances are often obscure. People are murdered, and it is sometimes not clear why. The deaths leave the narrator, and hence the reader, largely unmoved. The only true emotion we feel through Sam is his affection for Abigail. Perhaps we are meant to assume that Sam is more like his cold-hearted, assassin father than he cares to admit.
Part of the problem with the novel is the limitation inherent in the first-person narrative. It is difficult to feel truly caught up in the action when it is constantly interrupted by extended flashbacks, well-crafted though they undoubtedly are. Frustratingly, John Adams remains such a shadowy figure that he never becomes really interesting. He remains part of the invisible world, which is probably the author’s point, but it is tantalizing to be presented with a ruthless assassin without being given some clues about his motivation. What exactly transformed this man into a killing machine and what patriotic principles did he imagine he was protecting?
The Invisible World is not an entirely satisfying read. It sets out to be a thriller, but never thrills as much as one feels it should.