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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Delicate Love, Nicotine Phoenixes

Critics have been tempted to underrate Ruth Rendell as a writer because she is both highly popular and a crime novelist. But beneath her clipped, spare style lies an acute intelligence which can apply itself equally effectively to moral issues and matters of the heart.


Her latest novel, The Keys to the Street (Hutchinson, ?15.99 or $24), is a flawlessly structured, breath-takingly suspenseful love story, with a very surprising denouement. At its moral epicenter sits Mary Jago, the novel's timorous heroine, who decides one day to justify her existence through an act of pure altruism. She donates her bone marrow to a medical charity against her boyfriend Alistair's wishes, and so embarks on a course which incurs his violent rage and throws her into the tender arms of leukemia sufferer Leo Nash, whose life she may or may not have saved.


As Mary and Leo consummate their love symbolically in a borrowed house in London, numerous shady characters begin to impinge on their happiness. Not least of all, the notorious Regent's Park murderer, dubbed The Impaler, who is seeking a new victim to hang on the black iron railings which border the park.


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The world's giant cigarette companies can be likened to the phoenix; however hard society tries to burn them down, they always rise again to make more profits from the ashes. Thus, veteran investigative reporter Richard Kluger maintains in Ashes to Ashes: America's Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris (Knopf, $35) that celebration over the latest triumphs against the industry -- with an avowedly anti-smoking U.S. president and the first legal case of corporate responsibility for a smoker's lung cancer lost -- may still be premature.


Smoking kills nearly half a million Americans a year -- more than alcohol and all other drugs combined. And indisputable evidence of this fact has been available to tobacco companies since the late 1950s. However, through a combination of blanket deception, brilliant marketing and public relations activity, as well as canny financing, if not to say bribery, of key support groups, the industry has managed to override all challenges.


Meticulously researched and rigorously fair-minded, Kluger's book will tell you everything that you ever wanted to know about the cigarette business and more. You will learn that nicotine was named after Jean Nicot, France's ambassador to Portugal in the 16th century, who sent seed samples of the much praised wonder-drug home. And that Thomas Edison was one of the first anti-smoking activists, refusing to employ anyone who indulged in the vice.


But while Kluger will leave you with a sense of outrage at the tobacco industry's brilliant manipulation of its resources and the facts to push its own toxic products mainly at youngsters, it will not provide the reader with any constructive ideas on how to reverse this situation today.





Compiled from The Sunday Times and The New York Review of Books.