Smoking Kills

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Written by Antoine Laurain, translated by Louise Rogers-Lalaurie — The title of this book is marketing genius, with a wink in the direction of every packet of cigarettes and pouch of tobacco in the EU. Although we all know the evil weed is a killer, the consequence of this message being rammed down our throats by the authorities does rather limit its effectiveness in persuading hardcore smokers to give up. In some cases it has the opposite effect.

Smoking Kills was first published in French as Fume et tue in 2008 and has at its core the psychological rather than the physical effects of smoking. It is narrated by a smoking bore. Two packs-a-day headhunter Fabrice Valentine begins his story by confessing that his nicotine dependency led him to become a serial killer. He’s a man who considers the sweetest vices are stockings and suspenders, sexy girls, cigar smoke, champagne and packs of twenty.

He is in high dudgeon when a smoking ban wafts into his workplace and is convinced by his non-smoking wife to seek help from a hypnotherapist, who puts him under to relate and link the key moments of his life connected to smoking. This leads to around 60 pages of anecdotes about how Fabrice took up his smoking career, including how he met his wife by stubbing out his fag on a priceless work of art containing the ashes of the artist’s sister that he mistook for an ashtray and how his father died when he was run down by a cigar lorry in Cuba. The obsession of the deeply-addicted is well-drawn, with Fabrice’s dependency influencing every facet of his adult life as he rants about the injustice of the smoking ban.

After he gets all this off his chest he discovers he is intoxicated by his smoking sobriety and enjoys renewed passion with his wife for a couple of weeks. That is until his boss HBC drops down dead before he can draw up the contract giving Fabrice a promotion. Unable to cope with the loss of both HBC and cigarettes, he does what all smokers do – lies to himself that just one won’t do him any harm. To his horror he discovers the hypnosis has robbed him of any pleasure or joy as he draws in the smoke and he declares himself a frigid tobaccomaniac. The only person who can bring back the nicotine hit and reverse the process is the hypnotist, who turns out to be a fake, and a crook who ends up in jail.

Grieving yet again for the elusive smoke gratification, Fabrice discovers by accident, after accidentally killing a man, that the violent death has rekindled his euphoric pleasure as he lights up afterwards. But the intense effects only last a few minutes after the killing. This is how the demented Fabrice takes up premeditated murder and targets those he wants out of his life.

Perhaps something is lost in translation, not because the translator hasn’t done a good job but rather it’s a cultural thing around the French love of the absurd. The ironic humour can be rather wearing, although it does have its highs, and there are lengthy explanations of the chemical effects nicotine has on mind and body. That aside, Smoking Kills is a playful black comedy that will intoxicate and charm those who enjoy a puff of dark Gallic whimsy.

Also try Minced, Marinated and Murdered by Vanessa Barrot and Noël Bale, the wonderful Irene by Pierre Lemaitre or The Accordionist by Fred Vargas.

Gallic Books

CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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