“The makers of fine tobacco got men to part with serious money because
they were selling them a lot more than shredded leaves and nicotine. They
were selling a dream. Single malt distillers played the same game. It wasn’t
ethyl alcohol they were peddling, it was prestige. Trouble was, all three –
nicotine, alcohol, and prestige – were addictive.”
At one point a professional chef, Dr. Zol Szabo has seen himself promoted medical officer of health for Simcoe, Ontario due to the recent vacancy established by the incumbent. As the office chair is finding the groove of Dr. Zsabo’s derriere he receives a notice that a number of high school students from Erie Christian Collegiate are suffering from lip lesions and finger blistering with a progression towards kidney failure and ultimately death. In order to get to the bottom of this, he must confer with his fully-functioning and mentally-equipped medical investigative team to find out the cause of the sickness. Making up the versatile team are as follows: Caledonia University assistant professor and epidemiology savant Hamish Wakefield, private investigator and long-term girlfriend Colleen, up-and-coming medical student Natasha Sharma, effectively-charming newspaper reporter for the Hamilton Spectator and partner to Hamish, Al Mesic. Collectively they try to figure out the root of the problem which is causing this infectious disease before it becomes an epidemic or a full blown pandemic.
“White people look at me and automatically see a drunk who beats his girl-
friend, abandons his kids and gets unlimited government freebies. They
refuse to let themselves see a university-educated engineer with a bonus
built in…Twenty thousand years of intimate knowledge of and understanding
of these lands.”
This book covered a new dimension that in my past I have not encountered within my literary experiences. For one the thought of an epidemiology mystery predominately covering infected cigarettes being the substance of the book is one that I enjoyed, but was honestly not on my next batch shopping list. Add to the fact, a novel detailing some of the intricacies found within a Native Canadian reserve is also one I have not come across as a pronounced plot point of a novel. I was aware of the deep rooted disdain that the Natives have for the “white man”, and in a sense,rightfully so. But while reading I came across a man described as wearing a shirt reading “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492” you gain a more defined perspective of their true feelings. With all that being said, in totality I thought the storytelling was a little too procedural and proved to be a thorough case study for medical students, but elicited little excitement from me while reading the first third of the novel. The summary found on the back of the book pretty much covered the basis of the first one hundred or so pages, so it kind of felt a little bit of a detailed rehashing. This being my first Dr. Szabo Medical Mystery I was happy to know that Up In Smoke could be received as a standalone novel and the first section of this book allowed me to learn enough of the back story of the characters and to go from there. From that point the book really picked up and became less predictable and more engaging for the reader. The problem was the limited amount of twists and turns. Instead you get revelations that were unsatisfactory and a pace that trudged along. As a reader there was a distinct feeling that this was experienced first-hand by the author and he wanted to stay true to the events rather than resort to sensationalism. This is definitely commendable, but unfortunately lacks enough punch to entertain a majority of fickle readers who want a thriller/suspense novel rather than a subdued, yet authentic mystery. It is more appropriate for a newspaper editorial or a novella rather than a full-length novel.
One of the exchanges I enjoyed in the book was that between Dr.Zol Szabo and his terribly sick mother Kitty. It truly shows that no matter how old you may be, you are always a mother’s son:
“You know our friend with the shiny black eyes?”
“Shhh, Zollie. I hope you not tell anyone. Is it safe?”
“Safe and warm, right here on my lap.”
“Your lap? You supposed to hide it, so no one will see.”
“Don’t worry, she’s fine.”
“Did you say warm? What do you mean warm?” Her tone betrayed her alarm.”Like from smoking?” She never missed a trick.
“Just a little.”
“Zollie, how could you?”
“I was curious. It’s not everyday that you get to smoke a two-thousand-year-old pipe.”Come to think of it, he’d done it twice in the past few days.
“I gave it to you for safekeeping.”
“Mum, it’s okay. I’ll take good care of her.” He did his best to sound reassuring before they said their goodbyes.
Given the tone of the preceding text in the book, the above exchange came out of nowhere, but was a breath of fresh air. Another interesting aspect of the book, well for me at least was the personal dichotomy of Hamish Wakefield. At various times throughout the story Dr.Szabo would refer to Hamish as “Oscar Wilde” which I interpreted as him being confident, flamboyant, narcissistic, and pompous in his behaviour. At other inopportune times, with respect to the potential performance of the investigative team, he would be referred to as the “Tin Man.” At this point in time Hamish would be introverted, restrained, lacking confidence or simply unamused by the situation. Hamish’s characteristic flaws makes the whole relationship with Al that much more distinct and interesting to follow.
One thing is for sure is that the writer had a tremendous grasp of the necessary protocol and I personally felt comfortable knowing that this information was coming from a reputable source. While reading I wasn’t certain of the author’s motivation, but I liked the unintentional/intentional humour found in the book. For example, the fact that a homosexual with an obsessive-compulsion for cleanliness ends up with facial lesions and blistering of the hands was quite ironic. Also, as a result of a past concussion Dr. Szabo’s sense of smell forms a maligned partnership with his brain’s musical play list. For example; the smell of coffee brings the powerful voice of Celine Dion’s smash hit “My Heart Will Go On”, and on the precipice of lovemaking or the smell of bergamot oil on his lover’s skin none other then Marvin Gay’s ” Heard it Through the Grapevine” rings true. This was a running theme throughout the Good Doctor’s day-to-day life and will be enjoyable for some readers.
This book is recommended for people looking for a different kind of reading experience with lifelike events and a lack of nonsensical albeit mass-market-mandatory twists and turns. In honour of Mr. Nelson Mandela’s death I thought it would be appropriate to include the following quote from Up In Smoke.
“The Canadian parallels with the Apartheid legacies that still troubled her
African homeland were nauseating. It seemed humanity’s tribalism was a
fact of life in every part of the globe. Conflict between Them and Us was
hardwired into us all.”