News and Interviews

Straight-Razors, Scissors, and Deadly Secrets: Ross Pennie on His New Mystery Novel


Barbershops, unsettled scores, and a sweeping epidemic are at the center of Ross Pennie's newest novel, Bitter Paradise (ECW).

The latest installment of the celebrated author's Dr. Zol Szabo Medical Mystery series, the book follows Dr. Hosam Khousa, a Syrian trauma surgeon forced to leave his homeland after a campaign of terror against his family culminates in his daughter's murder.

As he and his remaining family settle into their new lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Dr. Khousa finds a new use for his steady hand in the barbering trade. While he dreams of one day returning to the operating theatre, life takes on a calm, steady rhythm. That is, until the brutal slaying of a Syrian man in his barbershop ignites a gang rivalry that will threaten the safety of his family once more.

Dr. Szabo and colleague Natasha Sharma, meanwhile, are busy trying to contain a terrifying strand of polio spreading throughout the city. While visiting an intensive care unit, they meet Dr. Khousa, there to see a critically ill friend. While there, Dr. Khousa notices something which may break the investigation wide open, but could also destroy his dream of working as a surgeon again. Stuck between his own ambitions and the safety of his community, the decision he makes will have far-reaching consequences.

We're thrilled to have Ross at Open Book today to talk about the thorough research that went into Bitter Paradise, the real Middle-Eastern barbers that inspired the book, and why he's often as surprised as his readers by the outcome of his novels.


Open Book:

Do you remember how you first started this novel or the first bit of writing you did for it?

Ross Pennie:

I wanted to start this Zol Szabo mystery with a murderous attack in a barbershop, having the reader experience it at close range. The scene needed to envelope Hosam, the Syrian refugee surgeon/barber around whom the story revolves. It also needed to invoke deep, visceral fear. I decided to heighten the tension by relating the attack from the viewpoint of Zol Szabo’s fourteen-year-old son. Once I had Hosam and Max Szabo together in a gut-wrenching opening scene, I knew I had a novel I could sink my teeth into.


How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?


Bitter Paradise opens and closes in a small barbershop in Hamilton, Ontario. For the past twenty years, I’ve been having my hair cut in a couple of shops staffed by immigrant and refugee men from the Middle East, predominantly from Iraq. As a group, and as individuals, they are polite, friendly, and intriguing. Although some are Christian and most are Muslim, few are devout. Most like their beer and spirits. Their first major purchase is a used car. The Canadian citizenship written exam – in English, of course – is their second preoccupation, and they often fail it several times.

The barbers speak Arabic in a variety of accents as well as Kurdish, Assyrian, Hebrew, and others. When they first begin working at the shop, they communicate with awkward, charade-like gestures and hold up a selection of clipper guards to determine how short the client wants his hair cut. Some of the men have years of experience as professional barbers, others are school dropouts with no training. Still others are highly educated professionals such as engineers and veterinarians whose first haircutting attempts were on friends and relatives.

To their clients, the barbers present a harmonious façade despite their disparate backgrounds from parts of the world notorious for sectarian hostilities. As the years go by and your barber’s English improves, you get to know his individual story and catch glimpses of the shop’s interpersonal hostilities seething below the surface. As long as your guy has a cut-throat razor in his hand, you try not to think about internecine bloodshed!

When a barber was fatally gunned down in his shop in Hamilton a few years ago, I knew I had a setting and an opening scene for a book. For Bitter Paradise, I placed my fictional shop on Hamilton’s Upper Paradise Road (corner of Mohawk Road) and called it Paradise Barbers. The double irony was irresistible.


Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts?


When I start writing one of these medical mystery novels, I begin with an outbreak of a puzzling illness. It becomes the job of Dr. Zol Szabo and his team of investigators to figure out what’s causing the illness, track it to its source, and bring the epidemic to a halt before untold deaths ensue. Initially, I have only a vague idea how the outbreak came about. I don’t know its source, and I have no clue as to how Zol and his team are going to get the job done. As the story unfolds, I play detective alongside Zol; theories and plot ideas flash into my head, often when I’m in the shower or on my long daily walks. Some ideas slip nicely into the story, others don’t fit at all. Once I’ve got the entire novel written, I send it to my publisher and editor. Sometimes they think the ending feels natural with the right blend of tension, surprise, and satisfaction. Other times they say the ending stinks and I need to think long and hard, then re-write the book’s final twenty percent. My editor’s frank assessment hurts a bit, but I trust her, and she always pushes me toward writing a much better novel. Bitter Paradise required some major work on its middle, but its final scenes only needed tweaking.


Did you have a “favourite” amongst your characters?


This book gave me two favourite characters: Hosam the Syrian refugee trauma-surgeon/barber, and Jesse the twenty-something IT whiz-guy who demonstrates an unexpected talent for epidemic investigation. Hosam allowed me to express my inner surgeon and sense of longing over shattered dreams. Jesse gave voice to my delight in whimsy and my love of under-the-breath wisecracks. Jesse, his earrings jangling, pranced into the novel one day completely unannounced. I had no idea he was standing behind Dr. Szabo’s office door, but I was delighted when he burst in. I hope to see both Hosam and Jesse in the next novel – if they survive this one, of course.


Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us about that process.


There are two aspects to this novel. The first is the medical mystery concerning a polio epidemic in Hamilton, Ontario that sees its victims first paralyzed and then in cardiac arrest. The second aspect concerns the hardships faced by Syrian refugees adapting to life in Canada. The medical details arose naturally from my career as an infectious disease physician, during which I confronted epidemics on four continents. I made certain that the facts for this book were cutting edge by using the internet to direct me to the latest medical literature. To achieve as much authenticity as possible in my portrayal of the immigrant and refugee experience, I read a number of memoirs of the Syrian civil war, interviewed Middle Eastern people from a variety of backgrounds, got to know the personal stories of my own refugee barbers, and drew from my experience providing medical care to struggling immigrant families.


Ross Pennie has been a jungle surgeon, pediatrician, infectious- diseases specialist, professor, and novelist. He lives with his family in Southern Ontario.

Buy the Book

Bitter Paradise

Fans of Bones and Coroner will love Dr. Zol Szabo, a doctor who is out to solve medical mysteries before it’s too late

After weeks of torture at the hands of Syria’s secret police, the bombing of his villa in the ancient city of Aleppo, and the murder of his daughter, trauma surgeon Dr. Hosam Khousa flees his fractured homeland with his wife and son. They make their way to Canada as refugees, where Hosam is forced to trade his prestigious scalpel for a barber’s humble clippers. Though he aches to regain his once- prominent surgical career, cutting hair in Hamilton, Ontario, seems a safe way to make a living, until a fellow Syrian is slashed to death in the barbershop. The ensuing gangland vendetta entangles Hosam and threatens his family.

At the same time, epidemic investigators Dr. Zol Szabo and Natasha Sharma are battling an outbreak of vaccine-resistant polio that has struck the city with terrifying fury. When Hosam visits a friend clinging to life in the intensive care unit, he spots something that might help the investigation but will ruin his chance of retaking his place in the operating theater. The Great White North is not the sanctuary he expected, but it’s a bitter paradise he must learn to navigate.