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.

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.

Potted book reviews – part 2

Whilst in Thailand recently I did quite a lot of reading. Here are a few reviews of books that I hadn’t read previously. Continued from part 1 of last week.

Dust Devils by Roger Smith
Dust Devils is the first work I have read by Roger Smith, but I guarantee you that it won’t be the last. Set in South Africa; it involves a journalist being framed for a murder he didn’t commit; a truly vicious killer who actually commits the murder (in addition to many others); the father of the journalist, a former soldier-for-hire, and a fairly vicious killer himself, who wants to repent for his past sins; in addition to several other character storylines. I don’t really want to give too much away, because if I do it will spoil the pleasure of reading what I think is one of the finest novels I’ve read in any genre this year. The characters are all beautifully honed by Smith’s pared down but incisive prose; and in Inja Mazibuko he has created one of the finest villains that I have come across in recent memory. Things you might expect to happen between characters (especially if we were working with Hollywood cliches) don’t happen, partly because Smith gives his character’s real motivations rather than the kind that are used simply to propel plot. Dust Devils crackles along quickly and, despite a fairly complicated set of storylines and plot strands, never once loses its footing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Under the Bright Lights by Daniel Woodrell
When a black businessman and political hotshot is murdered in his home, Detective Rene Shade is ordered to investigate it as a burglary/homicide, rather than stir up racial unrest in the fictional city of St Bruno, Louisiana. But Shade isn’t one to do as he’s told, so sets out to solve the case. The killing of a porn theater leads Shade to believe that the two incidents might be linked. Shade’s investigation is helped and hindered by various characters including his boss, who kowtows to politicians who don’t want the case to be solved,  a cynical and overweight partner, and his two brothers, one a lawyer concerned with his own political career, and the other the owner of a local bar, which also happens to be a stamping ground for criminal types – several of whom are involved in the case in one way or another. As things progress and bodies start to pile up, the chase leads Shade to a final showdown in the Bayou. UTBL is the first of the Rene Shade trilogy of novels that kicked off Woodrell’s career. It is superbly written and tightly plotted, though lacks the poetic language of his later work A Winter’s Bone. The relationships between the characters seem real and, despite being fictional, St Bruno seems like a character in itself. It is a work of real quality and comes highly recommended.