Saturday, April 2, 2011

Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith


Picador, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-312-68048-0. 290 pages.




Why am I leading off with photographs of a knife? It is the Okapi 907E and it has a part in the story. It's the weapon preferred by one of the characters. The author told me that "the Okapi of choice is the 907 E. It has put many brown men into bodybags. Quite a pretty knife, too." The Okapi has a distinctive shape and knowing what it looks and feels like adds a feeling of immediacy to reading the story. That's my hand and my knife. There is a link to a website selling Okapis below.

Wake Up Dead has been recognized worldwide and I've included some of the acknowledgments at the end. There is a lot of link love there and you might find something new so check it out.

First sentence: The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.

The Story: Roxy is an American ex-model married to a gunrunner and broker for mercenaries. The book opens with a business dinner where Joe and the elegantly dressed cannibal (he might only have eaten one heart for the cameras) are finalizing a deal.

Unknown to Joe and Roxy, when they leave the restaurant they are followed by two low-level thugs from Cape Flats— Disco De Lilly and Godwynn MacIntosh. Joe and Roxy are hijacked at the gate to their house, Joe is wounded, and the gangsters leave in Joe's Benz. Roxy makes a decision that leaves her husband dead and her a not-so-grieving widow.

The point of view shifts to Billy Afrika, an ex-cop just back from Iraq where he worked for a contractor providing security services for the U.S. Billy's employment had been brokered by Joe Palmer and Billy would like to know why he hasn't been paid. Arriving back in Cape Town, Billy returns to the Flats to get a weapon. Billy came from the Flats and hasn't been forgotten—"Billy Fucken Afrika" is the typical reaction. He runs into a detective with the unfortunate name of Ernie Maggott who knew Billy when he was a detective. Maggott doesn't remember Billy fondly. He wants out of the Flats and is looking for the big case to get him promoted.

Meanwhile, hijacker Disco De Lilly is consumed with the fear that a psychopath named Piper might get out of prison. Piper is still in Pollsmoor but that doesn't lessen Disco's anxiety. Disco was Piper's prison "wife" and the crude tattoos Piper carved into his body reflect Piper's obsession with him. Billy and Piper also have a history.

The hijacking, Roxy's actions, the obsession of an imprisoned psychopath, an ambitious cop,and the return of Billy Afrika start a chain of events that will leave a bloody trail through the Cape Flats and culminate on a Cape Town beach.

Review: Wake Up Dead is a crime thriller and there are elements I want to be present if the story is to appeal. I need a good story. If I don't care what happens next I'm not likely to continue reading. With a thriller I expect a faster pace and more intense action. I also look for a strong sense of place, sharp writing, and well developed characters. If I feel that the story and actions of the characters are plausible, all the better. Wake Up Dead nails everything I want in a good read.

Thrillers can be long on action and short on developing the world in which it is set but Wake Up Dead is grounded in basic human weaknesses like greed, lust, ambition, and revenge.

The lead up to the scenes of action and violence is very well done. Sometimes you know something is about to happen, other times it's "huh, I wasn't expecting that." Roger's thrillers are very violent but I've never thought that the violence was gratuitous. Brutally honest, yes. He writes about a segment of society where sudden and senseless violence is the norm and he has met the people capable of those acts.

A strong sense of place is something I enjoy in a story. After reading Wake Up Dead, I looked at images of Pollsmoor Prison and former gang members, scenes of Cape Flats. I felt I already knew those places and people from the vivid descriptions in the book. You will find links below that will show you how closely fiction can mirror life.

Wake Up Dead is written from multiple points of view. These points of view gradually build up a composite image of the people and events and their relationships. In some cases you can see that event A will probably lead to  consequence B but other times I found myself sitting there thinking about what I just read.

Roger's style of writing will appeal to fans of the hardboiled style. Crisp, punchy, and frequently laced with dark humor.

Try to get this image out of your mind:
The whore had yellow braids, the dark roots cross-hatching her skull like sutures on a cadaver.
The cannibal is described as having an elegant French accent leading to this scene
Then Joe gave her the look, invisible to anyone else, and she knew that the men needed a few minutes to talk business. Weapons or mercenaries. Or both.
Roxy stood. "Let's go to the bathroom."
"I don't need," the whore said, clearly new to this part of the game.
The cannibal elbowed her beneath her plastic tits. "Go and piss." Coming from his mouth it sounded almost like a benediction: Go in peace.
In Mixed Blood and now Wake Up Dead I've admired the way Roger builds his characters. He does evil really well though he says the characters write themselves. Piper, for example, is about as scary and real a character a as I have encountered in fiction. Billy you want to root for but he isn't an agent for good. Disco you feel sorry for, his life on a course for destruction, but you wouldn't want to be his buddy. Roxy is a basically good person who does bad things but isn't someone you can consider sympathetic. There aren't many innocents here. You know who the characters are and where they came from.

Wake Up Dead is a well done and exciting crime thriller that I recommend highly.  If you haven't read Roger's first book, Mixed Blood, pick up a copy at the same time. It also is set in Cape flats, has everything I like in a thriller (see above), and a wonderfully nasty detective named Gatsby.


Links to give you insights into the story, the setting, and the characters.

Roger's Website.

Video trailer for Wake Up Dead.

The Okapi pictured above came from World Knives where you can buy one for yourself. You can also use it to slice fruit and carve decorative items.

Slide show of Cape Flats and Cape Town on Roger's web site.

Slide show of prison body art with voices of former prisoners.

Photographs of South African prisons by Micheal Subotzky.

Recognitions:

Aside from being published in the U.S. and Germany, it is also out in the UK and Commonwealth via Serpent’s Tail, and will be published in France, Italy and Japan.


Roger interviewed by Dave Zeltserman.


The German translation (Blutiges Erwachen) was a bestseller and voted one of the Top 10 crime novels of 2010 by the influential Krimiwelt in Germany. (19 of the top fiction reviewers from Germany, Switzerland and Austria chose 10 crime novels out of the 800+ published in German each year. Roger was in the company of Pete Dexter, James Ellroy, Richard Price and Don Winslow.)


Wake Up Dead was the Philadelphia Inquirer Best Book of 2010.


It made the Top Ten lists of author Dave Zelsterman, Crimefactory editor/reviewer & noir man-about-town Keith Rawson, Drowning Machine reviewer Naoimi Johnson, UK review site CrimeSquad, and blogger Garrett Kenyon on Literary Kicks.