Title: Find Virgil
Author: Frank Freudberg
Publisher: Inside Job Media
The author seeks to imbue the story with an aura of realism by setting the period during which the events of the book began – 1995, the same year in which OJ Simpson was convicted, Forrest Gump won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Clinton was President.
Amid these real events is the fictional occurrence of journalist Martin Muntor being diagnosed with lung cancer. The illness comes as a shock to him because Muntor has never abused his body in any way. He has always treated it like a temple, eating right, keeping fit, working hard, going to church, and looking after his family. Yet in his illness, he is unemployed and alone, with just one year of life left in him.
The realization that passive smoking has driven him to this fills him with a rage against tobacco companies and smokers. Muntor decides to exact a unique form of revenge where he takes with him those who actually deserve to die.
Despite the pain he suffers, he takes the trouble to put together 6 large cardboard boxes with 700 Fedex envelopes inside. Each envelope contains a pack of 10 cigarettes, made up of a toxic mixture that ensures death within seconds of the first smoke. The wages of sin are death, Muntor believes, and he is ready to dole out that death himself.
Muntor fancies himself to be Christ, unbroken yet forced to atone for the sins of the world. Yet he is also crazy with a distorted, aggravated view of himself, as seen in the self-documentary he chooses to film to leave his story behind for posterity.
In W Nicholas Pratt, the President and and COO of Old Carolina Tobacco Inc, the world’s fourth largest cigarette company, Muntor has a formidable enemy. Pratt is a ruthless man who thinks nothing of increasing the nicotine content in cigarettes to get smokers addicted. Pratt ropes in Tom Rhoads, an ex-cop, currently a private eye, to find out the identity of the man who is wreaking vengeance on the tobacco industry.
Meanwhile, the police, already intrigued by the disappearance of another accused in the company, make their own attempts to figure out the identity of the vigilante, who has nicknamed himself Virgil.
In between there are a host of characters, each with his or her own axe to grind. Some of them unnecessarily steal the spotlight from the main characters and that is annoying.
In the tradition of troubled heroes, Rhoads has his own drama raging on in his personal life, with his brother’s inability to stay sober, and that is what makes him more willing to accept Pratt’s offer, even though he and Pratt distrust each other.
Meanwhile, Muntor intensifies his terrorising activity against the tobacco industry. He claims that he will not stop until he has reminded the world about the evil of smoking. He will give up only if the cigarette companies donate $1.5 billion to research.
Before long, the police and the FBI, Pratt, Rhoads and Muntor find themselves in a race to outwit each other, as they attempt to bring down Virgil.
The name, Virgil, that Muntor assumes for himself, in his conversations with the police, and with Rhoads, who he insists on speaking to, comes from the Roman poet Virgil, who was also a character in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I found this element particularly appealing. I love literary references, and I loved the fact that Freudberg got this part right.
But there were things that didn't work.There is the occasional inconsistency in tenses and a slight disregard for grammatical perfection. Often the author eschews the use of pronouns, and repeats proper nouns in every sentence until the usage begins to grate on our sensibilities.
Another inconsistency is that while Muntor sends out a letter to 700 smokers in the name of Matthew Doran, some chapters later, we have Pratt stating that it is Tom’s name on the letter.
This book could have gained so much from the services of a good editor. There are so many errors that could have been checked. For instance, in one chapter, Dr Trice is said to have hurried on her short legs to the restaurant. Why the derogatory reference to short legs?
Some of the chapters were far too short to be considered chapters. Chapter 56, for example, is just 42 words long.It didn’t feel good to have my attention uprooted and shifted to a different character just after a few paragraphs.
While the plot piques our interest, the writing is far from compelling. There are only a few notable exceptions when the writing rises above the general. Of these I can recall, The corpses of things he had begun and later abandoned cluttered his life the way trash blows down dead-end alleys and stays there.
But I overlooked all that in favour of the pace of this thriller, and how Freudberg kept me engaged with the desire to know what happens next.
The character of Tom Rhoads did not come out to be quite the hero that Freudberg portrayed him as. But Muntor was an unexpected anti-hero. I found myself rooting for him, in spite of the crazy narcissistic self-documentary filming. After all, his intentions were good, even if the means he used weren't.
The one thing I could not overlook, make that -- would not overlook, was the on-off romance between Tom and Mary Dallaness, an employee of Old Carolina. Mary was one of the most insipid women I’ve ever met in a book, and it was hard to believe that she had a hold on the romantic affections of a man like Tom, who was every bit her polar opposite. Also, her refusal to believe anything negative about the tobacco industry, insisting that it created jobs for ordinary people, irritated me so much, I longed to smack her hard across the face.
All in all, there was a lot of promise in this book, which could have been brought out in the hands of a good editor. The best feature of the book is that it confronts us with facts that I, as a non-smoker, felt terrified by. If these facts can terrify smokers into giving up smoking by bringing them face to face with some of the most insidious secrets of the tobacco industry and the nefarious tactics adopted by them to keep smokers hooked, it will be worth the effort.
That alone deserves a keen reading.