Book Review: Where There's Smoke...

PrintE-mail Written by Alister Davison

Review: Where There's Smoke... / Author: William B. Davis / Format: Paperback / Publisher: ECW PRESS / Release Date: Out Now

Nineteen years ago, a TV series began that captured my heart and mind like no other at the time. That show was The X-Files, and I was hooked from the very beginning. I bought mugs, t-shirts, sculpted statues, the near-obligatory videos (four episodes per tape), even the soundtrack album. I joined a fan club (like DVD, the internet wasn’t around), where I received a newsletter by post. Those were the days. 

It’s ten years since The X-Files finished on TV, presenting high quality drama with fascinating conspiracy theories. Sometimes ludicrous, often brilliant, it tapped into the cultural zeitgeist; characters appeared on The Simpsons, catchphrases such as ‘the truth is out there’ became common parlance. Has it stood up to the test of time? I don’t know, I’ve never re-watched it, but the fact US TV networks still search for ‘the next X-Files’ is testament to its popularity.

Fans will recall a notorious villain, The Cigarette Smoking Man. Originally an extra, played by William B. Davis, this man became a key part of the overall arc of the show, part of its mythology from day one. When Davis’s autobiography Where There’s Smoke… landed on my doormat, I was looking forward to rekindling old flames as I recalled my favourite episodes from the show, while getting some juicy insider gossip on what went on behind the scenes.

Not to be: Davis is a man who has lived for over seventy years, of which The X-Files was a mere decade. It shows in this autobiography, with the series only starting to feature in the final quarter of the book. Even then, he offers little insight to the show that any casual fan wouldn’t already know – the apparent aloofness of the two leads, the baffling outcomes to certain aspects of the plot, the shoestring budget and nervousness around the making of the first series. Yes, The X-Files may have made Davis a near household name in the 1990’s, but this is a book about the man, rather than the show that brought him fame.

That may be unfair. Davis is well-known in his native Canada, acting since he was a child and now running his own acting school. He’s been about the block, travelling to London and Dundee on the way, and for me this is where the book is at its most interesting. He’s enjoyed his time and it shows; not only the plays in which he performed or directed, but the women he became involved with on various levels. It’s not so much kiss and tell, merely an observation of who he’s met and where he’s been over the course of his life.

In other aspects, Davis has a matter-of-fact approach to his description; I feel this is where the book suffers. The style is fine, but when he says he wonders why his childhood years would interest anyone else, he does little to colour them. Similarly, when he mentions names, there’s an expectation that we’ll know exactly who he’s talking about. Granted, there are several I’ve heard of, especially those in England, but others remain unknown; even with his comment ‘yes, that so-and-so’, some remain a mystery. Is the Carolyn Jones he mentions the same who played Morticia Addams? We can only assume.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad book. Davis’s life has been interesting, but I’d certainly have found the book more engaging if I was Canadian. It’s assumed that the reader will have a familiarity with names and places, one that struck me as odd considering The X-Files was a hit across the globe.

Yet, there’s a warmth deep within. Not so much a yearning for the past, but a fondness in recalling it; no regrets, but a wondering how life could have been if different choices were made. In this, the book is a success. If, like me, you picked up this book purely as an X-phile, you may be disappointed. However, if you’re reading as the memoirs of an actor whose career spans radio and TV across the latter half of the twentieth century, it’s worth a go.

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