Review by Frank Moher
Canada’s small publishers are not known for producing summer beach-reading material, but ECW Press has done a decent job of it with Tainted (ECW Press, 312 pp., $24.95). It’s also not every day you come across a thriller featuring, as its central character, the associate medical officer of the Hamilton-Lakeshore Public Health Clinic. Talk about a Canadian action hero: “I have a certificate, and I know how to use it.”
But author Ross Pennie, a physician and infectious-disease specialist in Brantford, Ontario, is at least as skillful with the plot twists and the oh-no-how-are-they-gonna-get-out-of-this moments as he is, one supposes, with a case of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. (You can expect a lot of that sort of talk in Tainted.) For a book about mutated proteins, this one’s a lot of fun.
It begins with a scenario familiar from the 2000 (not-at-all-fun) Walkerton E. coli tragedy and 2008 Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis outbreak. Autopsies on the brains of three Hamiltonians — a philanthropist’s trophy-wife, a car salesman, and a dentist — have revealed signs of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. That’s mad cow to you and me. But it isn’t just any CJD — it’s a variant that seems able to spread more rapidly than your ordinary CJD. The implications aren’t lost on Dr. Szabo: “[The case] would make last year’s countrywide panic over one Alberta steer with BSE look like five minutes of rain at a Sunday-school picnic,” he muses, in a fit of simile-making worthy of Sam Spade.
Before long, the number of dead has risen to seven, and Dr. Szabo and associates must track down the source of the infection before news leaks to the public; otherwise, generalized pandemonium will ensue. The suspects are plenty: bad sausages, a certain brand of chocolates containing gelatin, or maybe a botox-like treatment called Extendo-Tox. The latter is especially problematic because it’s a homegrown product, the pride of Hamilton’s biotech industry, and if it turns out to be the culprit, well, Dr. Szabo will be about as popular with the local authorities as an NHL commissioner explaining once again why the city can’t have a team.
Pennie does a nice job of providing his main character with the sort of backstory that gives a novel like this welcome resonance. Dr. Szabo is a single parent, raising a young son, Max, with a mild physical handicap. A bit conveniently, Max not only loves the chocolates in question but is treated for his handicap with Extendo-Tox, which strains credulity even as it raises the stakes. But the scenes between father and son are authentic and affecting, and, like the rest of the book, written with a physician’s eye for the telling detail.
He also manages to squeeze in some acerbic criticism of our health system, as viewed from inside an epidemic. Administrators jockey for position and credit; politicians grab at quick answers and enflame fears. Tainted functions much of the time, by analogy, as a dissection of past Canadian crises. And sometimes its aim is direct. “‘Hunt down the prions, get this sorted, you’ll be a hero,'” one of Szabo’s colleagues assures him. “‘You kidding?'” he replies. “‘Even if I found the prions tomorrow, the press would say I dragged my feet and put lives at risk by masterminding a coverup. And whatever lobby groups got involved — cattle ranchers, meat packers, God knows who else — they’ll accuse me of reckless grandstanding, making wild suppositions without benefit of a meticulous investigation.
“‘Like the MOH in Walkerton — he did a perfect job of handling their E. coli water tragedy and still got crushed in the stampede of a panicking public.'”
Eventually, of course, the mystery is solved and our hero allowed to return to his quiet life, but not before he and his love interest negotiate some last-minute peril. This is a thriller after all (and the first in a self-proclaimed series of Dr. Zol Szabo mysteries, so I don’t think I’m giving too much away by telling you he survives). Meantime, the reader is given a crash-course in the unexpectedly fascinating subject of epidemiology. Perhaps this sort of deliciously morbid thriller is becoming our particular gift to the genre. First came Montreal’s Kathy Reichs and her books about a forensic anthropologist (which form the basis of the current TV series “Bones”). Now comes Dr. Pennie and his special insight into the world of exotic cooties. Canada may not have given the world a lot of action heroes. But we sure know how to give it the creeps.
First published in The National Post