I hadn't seen these books since childhood, and was rather startled to see them once again, lurking unexpectedly in new, imported American editions on a bottom shelf at Forbidden Planet, the ghosts of past years slyly rematerialised.
Both books do in fact deal with ghosts — the first being formerly titled The Jovial Ghosts. Smith's ghosts are quite unlike any you may have encountered elsewhere: he used the idea of ghostliness to supply him with a set of cheerfully immoral characters, who, being dead, have the convenient ability to dematerialise at will. Convenient for them, that is: rarely so for anyone who gets in their way.
They choose from time to time to inflict their company on an innocent banker with the unlikely name of Cosmo Topper, who, having the misfortune to be alive, can less easily escape the consequences of their frolics, although he seems well enough equipped with money to buy his way out of most trouble. Smith evidently detested American middle-class suburban society with a fierce loathing; he uses Topper's viewpoint to describe it and his intermittently substantial companions to tear it apart.
His books are most concisely described as escapist fantasy, and yet there's a peculiarly distinctive quality to the writing, and in places an engaging wistfulness, that raises them out of the ordinary. Expect nothing of the plot: it's merely an excuse for high jinks and bizarre observations.
I can imagine that such books were considered scandalously immoral at the time of writing; indeed, their reputation evidently lived on long enough that when I took The Bishop's Jaegers to school, at the age of about 11, it was summarily confiscated. His characters, living as he did in the Prohibition era, display an insatiable thirst for alcohol and a distinctly casual attitude towards theft and adultery.
I sympathise with Topper; I think there's something of him in many of us. Recommended to anyone suffering from a secret desire to be naughty.
Originally published in Thurb 1 in August 1984
October 2006: I reread these books recently. The first book is simpler and more innocent; originally I preferred the second, but now I find the first rather charming — childish in a nice way. The second book has its moments, but it displays a more adolescent sense of humour that might not appeal unless you're in the mood for it.