Book Review: The Cretin Gene

Our external reviewer Chris is making up the most of these reviews as I get ready to move into a new home and I am super grateful for that. This time, he read a book called The Cretin Gene by Brendan Hall.

Al Horowitz, ageing cartoonist and self-styled ninja, is catapulted from peaceful dotage to national notoriety when a dissident’s assassin disguises himself as a benign Horowitz vegetable character. Reviled in the press and hunted as a murderous agent of North Korean dictator Boh Gi Mon, Horowitz is soon on the run with his nephew ‘The Kid’, a reclusive arch-nerd geneticist, battling a plot to cretinise the populace through customised junk food additives and media programming. As the zombified masses rise in effigy-burning rage against Horowitz and his supposed fifth-columnist cadre, young lab colleague ‘Technicia’ joins the fight to save intelligent life in the UK while also juggling two male egos and her own secret of the heart.

It made me laugh many times. It was also clever. What a treat!

Each chapter is told from the viewpoints of one of the two main characters: Al and The Kid aka Dr. Grossman. In each of their narratives, they cast themselves as the hero while casting the other in a lesser or even bumbling role. Reading their respective versions of the same events, and of how they perceive themselves vs how the others perceived them, was amusing.

Chapters by The Kid, who is nerdish in the extreme and can quote pi to a thousand places (probably more but I wanted to work in a Weird Al reference), are written with sesquipedalian loquaciousness; that is, lots of big words in long sentences reminiscent of a Victorian writer who was trapped in their house by the plague with only a thesaurus for company. To write as The Kid would be a lot of work. Indeed, later chapters by The Kid are considerably less loquacious than the first few chapters, but still notable.

Another thing that made the book a good read were the many cryptic and not-so-cryptic references to poetry, to history, to chess, to books, to songs, to old war ditties and to movies. There were references to Stephen King works, veggie-tales, the Benedict Cumberbatch alternate name game, “1000 Years of Annoying the French” (maybe), a Spanish insult I haven’t heard since my high school days, original Batman tv show, and references to Victorian poems including two I mentioned in my review of The Frightful Verses.

Al Horowitz’s name is shared by a deceased real-life US International Master who was a prolific chess author in the middle of the last century (there’s a chess game at the end). For a long time, Horowitz’s chess books were the only easily available English language chess books.

A Cool Hand Luke (also Smokey and the Bandit) reference could have applied to my initial reading. “What we have here is a failure to prognosticate”. I hadn’t read the synopsis—just jumped in. I didn’t understand why everyone was rioting over the murder of a cartoon character. I didn’t understand why a science-based novel about a plague could get key terms wrong—it’s a gene, not a genome! For some unknown reason, I have a plague on my mind.

Then CLICK, I realized I was reading a Douglas Adams-type novel where serious and ludicrous work together for humorous effect. For example, people who have been “cretinized” have severe reactions to books. Books that rile them up to even higher levels of aggression and cretinization include self-help manuals, romance, and teenage vampire novels (lol!). Other books, from encyclopedias to Chaucer, result in lethargy to outright extermination (if you’ve attempted Chaucer potential extermination is an understandable outcome). Quoted poetry was like Vogon-inspired torture to the cretins.

A side chapter satirizes some of political extremism seen in politics today. Tabloid journalism, shock jocks are spoofed along with their attendant racism, bigotry, and anti-intellectualism. Modern day culture takes a hit too.

We… we see cretins. All the time. They’re everywhere. Walking around. Shouting. Taking selfies. They don’t even see each other, they just press the buttons. They only think what they’re told to think, Dr. Grossmann. Then they share it on MeFace in phonetic spelling and caps lock. You see, they don’t know that they’re cretins…” (movie reference alert).

At the final confrontation, the evil genius responsible for the mayhem, and good genius Dr. Grossman play a game of high stakes chess. Given all the references in this book, I thought there may be a hidden reference (see position below). Nope, or I missed it.

If your reading preferences include books by Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett you’ll probably enjoy this book. Some good chuckles, an enjoyable diversion, and clever.

Bonus material for chess fans (White to move)


Opening is B44, Sicilian Defence. Based on a 2.5 million game database the first time this position arose was in 1983 by chess prodigy and UK Grandmaster, Nigel Short, who won with White. Short’s game was only recently found and put online in March 2020 so the book isn’t referencing a fellow countryman.

After that, the next games to reach this position started in 1998. From then to March 2020 there are 994 games. White wins 30%, Black wins 33%, Draws 37%. That’s a respectable win ratio for Black, which is the side The Kid was playing.

Deep Rybka (an analysis engine) assesses the position game as equal.

The real Horowitz doesn’t appear to have reached this position in any of his games.

Book Rating: 5/5 stars

You can buy this book on Amazon and find it on Goodreads.

Disclaimer: This book was sent to us in ebook format by the author to read and give an honest review.

Check out Lisa King’s brand new novel called The Vanishing Hour which is available now on Amazon! She is a Canadian author from London, Ontario and I am super excited to share the love on her new book! If you like post-apocalyptic books, then this one is for you!


You can buy her book here:

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