Review: Sacrifices by Roger Smith

Anybody who has read my ramblings, moans and reviews for long enough knows that I’ve got a major literary jones for Roger Smith. Dust Devils was one of my favourite reads of 2011 and Capture was in my list for 2012 (and Ishmael Toffee wasn’t far off being on that list, either). He has the storytelling chops of 70s-era Elmore Leonard but with a more violent, despairing view of the world, and with less humour (although, it isn’t that Smith can’t do humour, it’s just that when it does appear it has the shadow of the gallows over it).

Within a few pages of the beginning of Sacrifices, wealthy South African couple Michael and Beverley Lane witness their steroid-addicted Rugby-playing son murdering a young woman with a dumbbell. Beverley conspires to cover up the crime by blaming it on their housekeeper’s Meth-addict son, Lynnie. Although Michael is horrified by both the murder and the cover-up he is too weak and cowardly to do anything about it. The authorities arrest the housekeeper’s son and throw him in Pollsmoor prison (which truly sounds like one of the worst hell-holes on Earth). Lynnie contacts his sister, Louise, and tells her that he’s innocent. But he is murdered before she gets the opportunity to really look into it, which also leads to their mother dying from a heart attack. It is at this point that Louise vows revenge on Lane and his family.

Gradually, Michael pulls away from his venal wife and sociopathic son and enters into a relationship with a young assistant at a bookshop he owns, and for a while he is happy, but this is changed when another murder throws his world into disarray and allows Louise back into his life. Eventually, she uses Michael’s own weak nature against him to bring about a bloody and powerful showdown.

Sacrifices is a novel that veers away from the big villains (Inja Mazibuko and Vernon Saul) that dominated Dust Devils and Capture. Here the villains are the strangers who are tied to us by blood and marriage. The villains are the lies that people tell to save those closest to them.

It’s a novel populated by the weak, the venal, the sociopathic, the angry, and the depraved. The few decent characters in the novel are destroyed one way or another and there are few acts of kindness to penetrate the darkness that shrouds the story. In some senses, a novel this dark should almost be too much for a reader to bear, it just shouldn’t work, but there’s a lightness of touch, a subtlety to Smith’s writing, that makes it compulsive reading. Smith plots his tale with a master’s hand, ensnaring the reader, drawing them in, despite the darkness, and enhances his growing reputation as one of the best thriller writers around. I loved every second of it. And it joins Fierce Bitches and The Baddest Ass on my list of faves this year.

In fact, from now on, I’ve decided to have a spot in my yearly top ten reads that I’m going to donate to Roger Smith. It’s up to him whether he wants to fill it or not.

My 5 Best of 2012 (plus 3 spares)

It’s that time of year, I guess; when as an occasional reviewer of books I should recount my faves of the year. 5 seems to be the magic number this time around, rather than 10, so I’ll give you mine (with three ‘spares’ thrown in – because the difference between all these books is for the most part so bloody tight). Of course that doesn’t mean they were written and released this year; just that I read them in 2012. They are listed in order of preference except for the spares:

5) City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance
I simply had to have something of Heath’s in this list, because I’ve enjoyed his work so much. I polished off Dig Ten Graves and The Bastard Hand in record time, and both were on the longlist of my faves of the year, with the final decision about which I liked the most being a tricky one. However, thankfully, the appearance of City of Heretics took the decision out of my hands by being so damn good. It’s the tale of an ageing con who’s looking to get some payback on the people who betrayed him, only to get sidetracked by a search for a serial killer, which leads him to a shadowy organisation that uses killers to further its warped ideology. It’s as tight and tuned as a drum skin and the lead character Crowe is one of the finest I’ve come across this year. If you haven’t read it yet you should – it’s a damn fine read.

4) Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
I’ve read some excellent short story collections this year, but this one took the prize. Alternating between ugly and beautiful, with an eye for spare prose and dark finales that would make Gordon Lish scream and shout with joy, Knockemstiff is a stunning performance with the kind of writing that makes most writers green with envy (I know I am!). The story Honolulu is probably the most perfect short I’ve read this year. Brilliant.

3) Wolf Tickets by Ray Banks
Bank’s thriller about two friends searching for some missing money (and a cool leather jacket) was one of the treats of the year, and certainly the most entertaining. I loved the pace, the story, and most of all I loved the voices of the two lead characters (Banks gives them alternating chapters to tell the tale). It’s a storming read by one of the finest British crime writers around. I polished it off in a day and was sad when it was done.

2) Capture by Roger Smith
Roger Smith’s Dust Devils was probably the best thing I read last year (and its villain Inja Mazibuko was easily the finest bad guy I’d come across in years), so I was eagerly looking forward to the follow-up. Obviously I wondered whether Smith could create another book quite as good as that noir masterwork – but I needn’t have worried. Smith’s pitch-black follow-up, Capture, a tale of murder, obsession, voyeurism, and psychological cruelty, is a stonking noir that starts low-key but gradually works towards as tense a climax as its possible to get. I’m still amazed at how Smith manages to make us care about characters as dark and practically irredeemable as these but somehow he does; and in Vernon Saul he has created easily the best villain I’ve read in recent memory (somehow even better than Mazibuko). If you’ve not read it yet, download it today. You won’t be sorry – it’s masterful.

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This really is the surprise of the year, for me. It’s not that I don’t read modern literary fiction, it’s just that I don’t read it that often (and by modern, I mean the last 20 years). Half the time the hype just leads to disappointment – the discovery that behind all the pretty prose is a story that probably could have been told faster, more economically and truthfully by ‘lesser’ genre writers. However, Barnes’ tale of friendship, memory, and the secrets that we keep really was a superb performance – the kind of tale that only a literary writer could do justice. The prose was economical but dense, the storytelling masterful, and the ending in its own quiet, unflashy way was one of the most powerful I’ve come across in quite some time. As you might be able to tell, I loved it.

THE SPARES:

All The Young Warriors by Anthony Neil Smith
A fine thriller from a writer who seems to improve with every book. This really was in the the top 5 until Julian Barnes sneaked in at the very last moment. I have a feeling that if Smith’s next Billy Lafitte book is an improvement on this one then I might need to keep the top spot free for that!

Beautiful, Naked & Dead by Josh Stallings
To be honest, I’ve read so much good stuff this year that choosing a top 5 has been a major bloody pain. And this excellent detective thriller by Josh Stallings is, like Warriors, really only out of the top 5 by a tiny, tiny margin. Superb stuff, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the sequel Out There Bad.

Bullets and Fire by Joe R Lansdale
Lansdale’s novelette (and even novelette might be pushing it in terms of length), is a revenge thriller with the kind of jet propelled storytelling that few writers possess. Ultra-violent but with a heart (even if it happens to be so twisted and diseased it’s gone black). In terms of pure narrative entertainment this is second only to Wolf Tickets.

Adios, this is probably the last you’ll hear from my blog till after Christmas, so have a happy and safe holiday season!

Review: Capture by Roger Smith

Last year I was lucky enough to discover the writing of Roger Smith when I bought Dust Devils, which was one of my favourite novels of 2011. It was dark, fast-paced, superbly written and featured, in the character of Inja Mazibuko, one of the most despicable villains ever to grace the pages of a crime thriller.

Then I read Ishmael Toffee, his excellent novella about a reformed gang killer who is forced to go back to his old ways when he discovers that the daughter of a man he works for is being sexually abused. Like Dust Devils it was dark stuff, but treated the thorny subject of child abuse with a lot of sensitivity.

In short, he’s become one of my favourite authors in the space of two books. I have Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead in my collection, but I just need to get around to having the time to read them.

However, I have just recently finished Capture, his latest and, in my humble opinion, greatest work. The story begins with a former policeman now rent-a-cop, Vernon Saul, watching a young child wander into the sea where she drowns. He has the chance to save her but chooses not to because he sees no benefit in it. The parents, Nick and Caroline Exley, are being too selfish to notice and when they do notice it is too late. Despite this, Vernon Saul puts on a show of trying to save their daughter’s life, because this is where he sees a benefit, due to the fact that it makes him look like a hero. He uses the child’s death to inveigle his way into Nick’s affections and convince the wealthy motion capture system designer to let him help in various ways. Too consumed by grief, Nick let’s Vernon help in the belief that he is a good man. Of course, Saul is nothing of the sort. He is the kind of man who loves to be in control of people. He is damaged by events in his childhood (sexual abuse and mutilation by his father) and can only really get enjoyment by making people dance to his tune,  especially when they suffer. Slowly but surely, and with great glee, Vernon turns life Exley’s life into a nightmare, leading him down a dark path that includes murder. As Nick realises that his life is spiraling out of control he tries to cut Vernon out but that just makes things worse…

Capture is the best thriller I’ve read this year, thus far. It has a complex character driven plot that interweaves numerous lives and deaths into its tapestry. Smith’s lean, muscular prose paints plenty of unforgettable images with an economy that is a joy to behold. It has lots of incident for those who like a body count. Also, it isn’t afraid to give the characters flaws and make them seem selfish or petty or even nasty despite the fact that they are fundamentally decent. However, its trump card is the character of Vernon Saul, a villain so Machiavellian that one is surprised that he doesn’t twist himself inside-out. He’s a murderer, a manipulator, a parasite, and also very human – a monster created by tragedy rather than a two-dimensional uber-criminal. Personally, I think the key to Roger Smith’s success is that he writes villains better than anybody else out there, and Vernon Saul is arguably his finest, even better than Inja Mazibuko, which takes some doing.

If you’ve not read any Roger Smith before you’ll be in for a real treat once you’ve loaded this into your Kindle . Capture is an excellent read by an excellent writer at the top of his form. Like all great thrillers, it grips from the first page and cranks the tension up until it reaches breaking point, particularly the finale, which left my nails pretty well shredded from biting them too much.

In all honesty, if I read better crime thriller this year then it will seriously have to be really bloody amazing.

It’s that good.