"Funny, he tends to make a bad first impression, until you realize he's got a heart of gold . . . and the courage of a lion to match."
William "Bill" Smithback, Jr. was a New York-based journalist and author, and a close—if somewhat reluctant—associate of Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast. He first appeared in Relic as a writer commissioned by the New York Museum of Natural History for a book about the museum and their upcoming Superstition exhibition. Smithback later became the first character from the Pendergast series to appear in a non-Pendergast story when he was hired by the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute to document Nora Kelly's expedition to find the lost city of Quivira in Thunderhead.
Smithback convinced Kelly to move from New Mexico to New York and they were later married. On the night of their first anniversary, Smithback was the victim of a home-invasion murder, setting off the events of Cemetery Dance.
Appearance and Mannerisms
Smithback was tall and lanky, with unruly brown hair and a perpetual cowlick. He was perpetually disheveled and slightly grimy, like someone who was too busy at journalism to care about his appearance. Margo Green suspected that he deliberately cultivated the look.
Playful and sarcastic with a quip for every situation, Smithback was quick-witted and self-assured. He also had a reflective and sensitive side that often took others aback when he showed it.
He grew up a fan of jazz, poetry, and the works of Damon Runyon, which may have influenced his later relocation to New York City. Though his typically unkempt appearance belied a love of fine dining and expensive scotch, the gregarious Smithback felt equally at home in a dive bar, five-star restaurant, or remote expedition campfire.
Smithback grew up in a Boston suburb along with his twin brother, Roger. Their father, William Smithback, Sr., preceded both of his sons into newspaper journalism, eventually taking over the Beverly Evening Transcript. The twins also have a half-sister.
Smithback was married to Dr. Nora Kelly, an archaeologist from Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The Museum Murders
Bill's career as an author began with a puff piece book about the Boston Aquarium. He eventually moved to New York City and accepted a commission from the New York Museum of Natural History to write a book about the museum, focusing on their upcoming exhibition, Superstition. Smithback's investigative journalist instincts nearly cost him the job: as the controversy surrounding the exhibition continued to grow, he found it nearly impossible to remain within the "show piece" guidelines imposed on him by the museum's public relations department. Ultimately, he turned his research—and his own experiences during the exhibition's disastrous opening night—into a best-selling novel on his own, Relic.
The New York Post and the Subway Massacre
On the strength of Relic, Smithback landed a job as the crime correspondent for the New York Post, marking the start of a long rivalry with Bryce Harriman, his counterpart at the New York Times. When a missing New York socialite's headless skeleton was found in the Humboldt Kill, setting off the events of Reliquary, Smithback's coverage caught the attention of the victim's mother, spurring her to organize a demonstration movement among the city's upper class. It also got the attention of the leader of a large homeless population living in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath Manhattan, who claimed to know who was responsible, and that his people were also being targeted by the same killers. The city found itself more on edge after another attack left nine people brutally murdered. When a planned midnight vigil in Central Park devolved into a riot between the demonstrators and the homeless, Smithback again found himself in the midst of the action, chronicling the experience in the bestseller Reliquary; he donated half of his earnings from the book to homeless missions and charity foundations.
The New York Times and the Quivira Expedition
Smithback's coverage of the Subway Massacre ultimately resulted in him taking over Bryce Harriman's crime desk at the New York Times, further escalating the enmity between them. After two years at the Times, Smithback took a leave of absence when he was hired by the Santa Fe Archaeological Institute to accompany an expedition into the remote redrock canyon region of southern Utah in search of the lost city of Quivira. His account of the adventure became his fourth book, Thunderhead.
Return to New York and the Surgeon Killings
After recovering from the Quivira expedition, Smithback convinced Nora Kelly, the expedition leader—and only other survivor—with whom he had become romantically involved, to move to the east coast: she had been offered a job with a new museum founded by billionaire Palmer Lloyd. The museum quickly folded, however, and Kelly went to work for the New York Museum of Natural History, where an encounter with FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast began the events of The Cabinet of Curiosities. When Smithback's coverage of her work with Pendergast seemed to spawn a copycat serial killer, the resulting fallout affected both his personal and professional life. His old nemesis Bryce Harriman returned to scoop him under his old New York Post banner as "the Surgeon" continued to claim victims. Smithback's attempts at redemption in both arenas again got him closer to the action than he would have liked, as he nearly ended up as one of the Surgeon's victims.
Smithback and Kelly patched up their relationship and were married the following year, spending their honeymoon exploring ancient ruins in Cambodia.
Edward Jones and Diogenes Pendergast
Smithback returned from his honeymoon to his worst nightmare: Harriman had worked his way back to the New York Times. Now rival colleagues competing for the favor of editor Fenton Davies, Smithback's participation was cut short when he was involuntarily committed to River Oaks psychiatric hospital under the pseudonym "Edward Murdhouse Jones," a precaution taken by Pendergast after he received a threat on Smithback's life from his brother, Diogenes. Smithback negotiated his release just in time to find himself thrust into the midst of the museum diamond theft in Dance of Death, and front and center at yet another ill-fated exhibition opening during the events of The Book of the Dead.
Later that year, Smithback and Kelly celebrated their first wedding anniversary. After an exquisite romantic dinner at Smithback's favorite restaurant, Café des Artistes, the couple returned to their West End Avenue apartment. Kelly stepped out briefly to pick up a cake from the patisserie around the corner, leaving Smithback alone drunkenly reminiscing about their first meeting at the launch of the Quivira expedition. An assailant, clearly identified as their actor neighbor Colin Fearing, entered the apartment while she was gone and attacked Smithback with a butcher knife. After a brief but valiant struggle, Smithback was dead, the victim of several stab wounds. The killing blow pierced the heart with such force that the knife embedded itself half an inch into the floor.
His murder, the strange tableau left at the scene, and the ensuing investigation by his friends Vincent D'Agosta and Aloysius Pendergast set the stage for the events of Cemetery Dance.
Like many other characters, Smithback was eliminated from the script and does not appear in the 1997 film adaptation of Relic.