Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mixed Blood, Roger Smith

Henry Holt and company, 2009, 304 pages.

I am starting this blog where my interest in African crime fiction started, with Roger Smith's first novel, Mixed Blood. I was reminded of how I approached Mixed Blood when I read Mike Nicol's post in Crime Beat, Crime Beat: That alien genre fiction, where he discusses the opinion of a book reviewer that crime fiction, to have literary value, needs to probe the society that produced it to be taken seriously. The reason I mention Mike's article is that I opened Mixed Blood expecting to learn something about South Africa. Before it arrived in the post, I had gone through the text, video, and slides on Roger's website, read his twitters, corresponded with him, explored Cape Town on Google Earth, and read about Cape Flats on Wikipedia and other websites. I doubt if I will ever again do as much preparation before reading a book. I knew I was getting an action thriller but I also knew something of the truth of the setting.

The Book
Jack Burn has a gambling problem. Back in the U.S., a large debt put him in the middle of a robbery that left a cop dead. Jack escapes with a large part of the loot and takes his pregnant wife and young son to Cape Town, South Africa. With a new identity and lots of money, Jack feels safe until a random home invasion by a couple of drug dealing gang-bangers puts him in the sights of Rudi "Gatsby" Barnard, physically and morally repugnant, and corrupt cop. Rudi senses that there is more to Jack than just another American expat and sees him as a means of solving his need for money, lots of it. Also drawn into the picture are vengeance seeking ex-con named Benny Mongrel and the Zulu Special Investigator Disaster Zondi who wants to settle an old score and at the same time take down a bad cop.

Mixed Blood is a solid thriller with the plot, action, and violence that make this type of story enjoyable. Roger also delivers excellent character development which is good to see in a plot driven genre. While I enjoyed it as a thriller, there is something much more that makes it stand out for me, the role South Africa plays in the story.

Consider Rudi "Gatsby" Barnard. His nickname comes from the signature South African sandwich, the gatsby, that he favors (see the photo). With his horrible body odor, sumo-sized gut, air bag-sized butt cheeks, yellow teeth like bone fragments in an open wound, and a love of "Jesus Christ, gatsbys, and killing people" you might dismiss him as a caricature of the bad cop.  But Rudi is a holdover from South Africa under apartheid who somehow survived the transition. About Disaster Zondi, "He knew men like Zondi. Hell, he'd spent a whole chunk of his life hunting, torturing, and killing them." Do a Google search with the terms apartheid and apartheid hit squads and you will see that Rudi is a composite of real people and events.

Moving through the story, almost like an observer, is BennyNiemand, aka Benny Mongrel. A Cape flats career criminal recently out of Pollmoor Prison after a 16 year stretch, Bennie has stolen, raped, and killed most of his life. Yet there is still a sort of dignity about him. Pulled from a heap of garbage shortly aft his birth, the only creature he has ever felt affection for a mongrel dog named Bessie, Benny seems the most tragic character in the story.

Cape Town itself is a character. Gatsby has made the aeolian sand flat known as Cape Flats his personal fiefdom. It blasted by winds in the summer and many areas flood in the winter. Here are the government-built townships,  apartheid's dumping ground, where non-whites were forced to move. They are a place of terrible poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence. In contrast, Jack Burn and his family live on the wealthy Atlantic side. Take a look at the videos on Roger's website and the slide show of images of Cape Town and Cape Flats that will give you a good picture of the settings in the book.

Together, Rudi Barnard, Benny Mongrel, and Cap Flats and it inhabitants show you that the face of horror doesn't need the supernatural. True horror can be of our own making.

I enjoyed Mixed Blood as a straight-up thriller and also for the intense sense of place that Roger was able to weave into the story. Recommended highly for thriller readers who don't mind stomach churning violence.

Next up, Tooth and Nailed by Sarah Lotz