In Roger Smith’s Man Down (his first set in the US), South African ex-pat couple from hell, John and Tanya Turner (who are like George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, if George and Martha were psychopaths), are the subject of a terrifying home invasion by three masked men. Initially straightforward, the plot twists and turns as fragile alliances are broken and formed between the captors and their captives, and the story flits between past and present, right up until a genuinely horrific climax.
Man Down is the first Smith I’ve read that I can’t quite give an unconditional rave, but only for reasons that I will explain at the end. Smith has always dealt in shades of grey (tending mostly towards the darker end of the gradient), but here he deals only in black. John Turner is an awful specimen of humanity, redeemed only by the fact that his wife and their kidnappers are so much worse and that he has something that might approximate love towards his daughter and girlfriend.
The story begins in dark fashion, smartly set-up in Smith’s classy, clipped prose, then gets darker and darker as the story progresses, until it collapses in on itself to form a grand guignol black hole of horror from which no light can escape. The tale is very well written, the timelines are beautifully handled, and Smith can elicit suspense like few other thriller writers, but the ending is going to be very divisive. It’s the goriest thing that Smith has ever put in a crime thriller, which is saying something, as Smith does nasty violence very well, but this is more of a horror climax. It is genuinely gut-wrenching in the truest sense of that word. Also, the fate of one of the characters (one of the few to elicit any sympathy, barring the Turner’s young daughter and a kidnapped girl) might jar readers’ sensibilities: Smith sets it up that getting close to a man like Turner, in the manner that they do, is only going to end badly. It makes sense, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach.
Man Down is a very good tale, but it’s so harsh and dark, without even a glint of the gallows humour sprinkled through Smith’s other tales, that you come away feeling like you should take a shower after finishing the final sentence. Smith’s brilliance keeps you reading, even when the story becomes unbearably dark and gruesome; it’s a tough tale that’s highly recommended for readers with very strong stomachs, but for those with delicate sensibilities you might want to look elsewhere.