Review: Mixed Blood by Roger Smith

Regular readers will know how much I love the work of Roger Smith. In my opinion, he’s the best writer of noir thrillers around. His work is a mixture of razor sharp, clipped prose, incisive and clever plotting, brutal violence, well etched characters, and a fatalist’s eye for the dark ending.

Mixed Blood is one of his earlier works, and the only one that I hadn’t read. It had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time, partly because once I finished it I knew I’d have to wait some time for the next Smith novel to come around. Hence delaying the inevitable.

Like all of Smith’s best work, Mixed Blood begins with a tragic incident from which the protagonist tries to escape, usually with disastrous results. In this case, a couple of Cape Town hoods try to rob the house of Jack Burn and his family. The problem for them is that Burn is an ex-military man who’s on the run because of an armed robbery gone very wrong. He kills them in the struggle and disposes of their corpses. This brings all manner of problems for Burn. Firstly, his already strained relationship with his pregnant wife is brought to breaking point. Secondly, corrupt, murderous and grotesquely obese cop Rudi Barnard is looking for one of the hoods that Burn killed. Barnard finds the car belonging to the hoods parked near Burn’s home and interviews the American. He suspects that something isn’t quite right with the man’s story and delves into his background. Barnard soon finds out Burn’s identity and realises that this might be his way to an early and lucrative retirement. Thus ensues murder, kidnapping and some seriously bone-crunching action and violence.

Mixed Blood is another fine addition to Roger Smith’s brilliant back catalogue. It’s tight, controlled, well plotted, with a varied and strong cast of characters, superbly paced, and as ever with Smith has a wonderfully repulsive villain in Barnard, who is happy to murder anybody that crosses his path. Honestly, Smith writes the best villains in crime fiction – as repugnant as they may be they’re never less than human, and their motivations always make sense, even when what they are doing doesn’t. Smith also writes well about troubled family units, displaying their foibles and peccadilloes with an eye and an ear that would shame many of the literary writers for whom troubled families are a stock in trade. If you have yet to read Smith, I urge you to do so immediately. If you’re into balls-to-the-wall crime and noir thrillers, there isn’t a better practitioner around. Excellent, and highly recommended.

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Potted Reviews: Rust and Bone – Craig Davidson, American Death Songs – Jordan Harper, 18 Days – Allen Miles, The City and The City – China Miéville

A couple of heavily altered stories from Craig Davidson’s collection of shorts Rust and Bone were the basis of a recent film of the same name by French director Jacques Audiard. It was a good film, a strong film, but it lacked the humanity that makes the title story such a wonderful short tale. For a start, the protagonist in the film is a selfish prick with few redeeming features (he improves as the film progresses, though not that much), but in the story he’s a truly decent man who fights out of a sense of duty and honour (to say more would be to spoil things). It also contains some of the finest prose you’ll find in short fiction – beautifully written, perfectly modulated, and wonderfully paced. The other tales in the collection aren’t quite as perfect, but they’re still superbly written with three-dimensional protagonists who burn brightly long after the final word has been finished. Excellent stuff. Highly recommended.

Had it not been for Rust and Bone, Jordan Harper’s American Death Songs would have been the best short story collection that I’d read this year. As things stand it runs Craig Davidson’s collection a very close second. The prose is less flashy, and the tales are less angst ridden, but, damn, Harper tells a mean story. There are some really superb shorts in this book, with some recurring characters and nice line in amorality. Also excellent, and also highly recommended.

In 18 Days, the protagonist Davy Sheridan has everything to live for: a beautiful wife, a steady job and his first child on the way. But when Davy’s wife dies in childbirth, he falls to pieces and goes on a long, self-destructive bender – the 18 days in question – that threatens his sanity, his relationships and even his life. Miles’ novella isn’t exactly what you would call a pleasure read, but if you have the constitution for it it is a good read. Miles’ prose is, for the most part, strong and direct and at its best when it keeps things simple. Sheridan’s innate selfishness makes him difficult to warm to, but Miles’ control of the story keeps you reading to the end. Recommended.

The City and The City by China Mieville works on the premise that two cities at the far end of eastern Europe share the same physical space yet have their own separate identities. They are separated by crosshatching and the residents’ skill in the art of unseeing each other. But they are also separated by the fear of Breach – the concept of a person from one city suddenly seeing or interacting those in the other city. Once Breach has occurred a shadowy organisation takes over and deals with it once and for all. It’ll take most readers a bit of time to get their heads around the concept. But once it sinks in I have no doubts that most of these readers will be hooked on a murder mystery that takes in the concept of identity, has faint digs at the society we live in (we often unsee the homeless or areas of vast deprivation when the need arises), and makes less veiled attacks at corporate interest (not that surprising considering Mieville’s well-documented socialist leanings), but is also a damn fine tale in its own right. It’s the kind of idea that Philip K Dick would have had a field day with in his 60s heyday, though Mieville is a far better prose stylist than Dick. Highly recommended