Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith

Available from Amazon in a Kindle edition.

Fans of Roger Smith's crime thrillers will find the start of this novella (based on an earlier short story) a little different. Ishmael Toffee has all of the characteristics of Roger's horrifying villains: Cape Flats, heavily tattooed gang assassin with countless kills from his Okapi knife, just out of Pollsmore Prison. What makes it different is that Roger gives Ishmael humanity, even a soul, beneath the prison ink that covers host of his body.

One day out in the prison yard, Ishmael decides he doesn't want to kill any more and walks away from a hit. This makes him a marked man and the warden pulls him out of general population and turns him to gardening where Ishmael finds peace with his hands covered in the dirt instead of blood.

He is deemed rehabilitated (Ishmael isn't sure what that means), released, and given employment as a gardener for a wealthy white man, John Goddard, in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia. Goddard is a widower, living with his six year old daughter Cindy and colored housekeeper Florence April. This perfect looking household has a black secret, Goddard is abusing little Cindy.

Cindy sees something to trust in this scrawny little man covered in pictures and finds a way to tell him that her daddy hurts her. All of Ishmael'survival instincts tell him that this isn't an affair for a brown man  in a white man's world but he can't help but try to help this little girl who is willing to put her fate into his hands.

This is where the short story ended and Roger continues the novella with Ishmael's attempt to get the girl to safety. With Tin Town (Cape Flats) lusting for the huge reward the father has offered, Ishmael's efforts to conceal a little blonde white girl in one of the most dangerous places on earth becomes desperate.

If asked to recommend a work by Roger Smith that would give a reader a feel for his style of writing, I'd suggest starting with Ishmael Toffee. In this compact story you get the range of his dark view of contemporary South Africa. Roger's novels are known for their brutal violence but it is social commentary that underpins his work. He wrote in an email: "And the same people who suffered under apartheid -- the people who live in the urban ghettoes and the rural slums -- are still suffering now (as victims of violent crime, poverty, HIV/Aids and TB)." In Ishmael Toffee you experience the heat, the smells, the struggle to live in Cape Flats and the lives of the people who probe the dumps looking for something that will keep them going for another day. He contrasts this with the wealthy suburb of Constantia, not far from Polsmoor Prison where Ishmael spent much of his life, where Ishmael's arrival is treated with suspicion even by the colored maid working in Goodard's walled estate. Both the maid, Florence April, and Ishmael, grew up under apartheid and neither are comfortable negotiating their way in this new world. This and their fear of authority affects their decisions. The reader might wonder why they take the actions they do but how they react is a result of what happened to them in the past and it makes them real people and not cardboard cutouts.

Roger is a meticulous researcher and you will find this youtube interview of Ice, the man who inspired Ishmael Toffee interesting. Personal note: the knife you see in the first few seconds is an Okapi 907e. I have one though I've only used it to slice far.

Falling, a short story, is included with this novella. It is a nice, raw, piece of noirish writing with doomed characters. Ford was a highly respected cameraman until drugs reduced him to filming porn. The opening begins with scenes that will probably kill any interest you might have in viewing porn, if you had any interest that is. Ford is trying to make a comeback but finds himself linked to prostitute/porn actress/meth addict Trinity. Can they pull themselves out of this marginal existence and make something better of themselves? If you've read any Jim Thompson you'll know the answer to this question. As a bonus, a character from Ishmael Toffee figures into the story.