It is rare to find a novel that is both a true thriller and outright hilarious. If you treasure that combination as much as I do when it’s done right, then you’ll want to practically inhale Baked, the unique, drug-fueled romp from Mark Haskell Smith.
The story revolves around popular botanist Miro Basinas. Popular, because he has created an award-winning strain of marijuana for his rather exclusive clientele. Of course the illegal drug trade leads to murder, but the book is so much more than a crime novel. In between the laughs it tackles concepts like greed, and morality in ways that Weed and Breaking Bad haven’t even considered.
As Smith points out, drugs are a huge subculture and a business that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the underground economy. Of course, that also means hundreds of millions spent on law enforcement, trying to stop that business. An interesting arena indeed for a story about an amateur botanist.
“I was fascinated by the science involved and the fact that there are individuals risking imprisonment to try and keep the genetic record of the cannabis plant flourishing,” Smith says. “It’s inspiring. And then that there’s an annual competition for the best marijuana… that’s just too delicious an opportunity to pass up.”
Yes there really is a Cannabis Cup held in Amsterdam and winning it makes Basinas the target of some very bad people. But considering his affection for illegal greens, can Miro Basinas really be the hero? Smith says, absolutely!
“Miro is a true artist in his way. He’s fighting against the forces of industry who want to control what he does. The subtext for me was the struggles of an artist in a society that doesn’t care that much about art, until that art becomes a valuable commodity, then the corporations move in to co-opt them.”
So how does a crime drama with such a lofty theme turn out to be laugh-out-loud funny? Smith says he never tries to force the humor. It just comes out of the characters and their passions and agendas.
“For me, plot comes out of the desires, decisions, actions and reactions of your characters. If you try and impose plot on character you’ll end up with something that seems forced or, worse, phony.”
This doesn’t sound like a man who sticks to thrillers and, in fact, Smith turns out to have some surprising literary influences.
“I’m a huge fan of Patricia Highsmith,” he says. “I think her work has influenced me the most. Others who really inspire me are people like David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, Roberto Bolano, and Charles Bock.”
But Smith admits that Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Tom Wolfe and early Hiaasen also had an influence.
While not a television fan, Smith is an accomplished film writer, having won a best screenplay award for a Brazilian film at the Miami Film Festival and scripted the noir filmPlaying God which starred David Duchovney and Angelina Jolie. Despite such success, he says the screenwriting has little impact on his novels.
“They’re completely different writing muscles and screenwriting is a collaborative endeavor where novel writing is solo. A screenwriter doesn’t have much control on what gets in the movie or left out, a novel writer has complete control.”
Baked is Smith’s fourth novel, following Moist, Delicious and Salty. I thought perhaps he was a frustrated cookbook author, but Smith says not so.
“The funny part is, I kind of fell into the one word titles by accident,” Smith says. “When I turned in Salty it was called A Cheap Holiday in Other People’s Misery and my editor said: “How about a nice one-word title?”
Well, that’s cute but trust me, the real funny part is pot that tastes like mangoes. And you’ll find lots of other funny parts if you pick up this subversive, thoughtful comedy thriller. Baked is really well done.