Roger Smith talks about his brilliant new novel Nowhere

Nowhere_RogerSmith

Regular readers of this blog will know just how highly I rate Roger Smith’s excellent new novel Nowhere. It contains fantastic characters, a compelling plot, along with a detailed view of South African politics (old and new).

It’s available to pre-order at the moment but will be available to buy on 23rd February. I highly suggest you grab a copy. Otherwise you’re missing a treat.

Roger was kind enough to answer some questions about the new novel recently. He really gave me some very illuminating answers that should make folks want to read this superb novel

Nowhere is without a doubt the most political book of your career. And South Africa is such a prominent supporting character in the story. Was it your intention to bring more attention to the politics of your country with this novel?
The three books I wrote before Nowhere (Capture, Sacrifices and Man Down) were all pretty intense, almost claustrophobic, psychological thrillers. Since they were set in South Africa (although Man Down was also set partly in the US) the particular nature of South African society—which is a very politicized society—informed the books, of course. The decisions the characters made (and the crimes they were able to get away with) were a direct consequence of living in South Africa, but the unique political sensibility of the country was implicit in those quite contained stories rather than highlighted.

So, before I wrote Nowhere, before I had any idea what the book would be about, I felt the impulse to write something more expansive, something on a broader canvas, and something that would allow me to use all stuff crammed into my fifty-five-year-old South African head: memories, fears, anger, disillusionment—the fallout from growing up under apartheid, going through the giddy Mandela era and then witnessing the rise of the cynical, corrupt regime that is in power now.

I’d been obsessively reading Shelley’s Ozymandias, with its powerful image of a broken statue’s trunkless legs and head lying in the desert sand—a warning about the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build—and it struck me that all that remains of the Afrikaners’ forty-six year blight of apartheid (when they had felt so all-powerful) are some old statues of their forgotten leaders lying in sheds or standing in the dust in a couple of tragic little white homelands whose inhabitants still cling to the notion of Boer superiority, and it left me with the certainty that this new regime will come to dust, too, in time.

What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?
I was worried that it was too South African. That it would be incomprehensible—or, worse, boring—to foreign readers. I wrestled with that while I was writing it and then I thought, fuck it, just write the thing the way it wants to be written. I’ve been very encouraged by the early feedback on the book (including yours) from readers in the UK, Europe and North America.

There is one particular moment when Steve Bungu recalls a specific piece of torture to a loved one. Was this based on research?
Over the years I’ve known people who were tortured by the SA security police and I’ve also spoken to security policemen and I’ve heard stories that are hard to stomach and difficult to comprehend, so, yes, the stuff in Nowhere is rooted in fact.

Speaking of Bungu: In my own humble opinion, you write the best villains in crime fiction – how do you manage to create such vile, and yet three-dimensional antagonists?
Thanks, Martin, I appreciate that. Well, villains are always the most interesting characters to write, aren’t they? And the challenge is to give them dimension, to make them complex, to force the reader to identify with them to some degree, even if that’s uncomfortable.

The genesis of Bungu was quite interesting. Around thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I lived in Johannesburg and was involved in making anti-apartheid documentaries. This was a bad time: states of emergency, draconian media gags, troops in the townships, arrests, political murders. Nobody had any inkling that it would all be over in a few years. Anyway, I was put in touch with a Zulu poet who was quite a prominent figure in the Black Consciousness movement who had been detained and tortured by the security police in Durban and had escaped and was hiding out in a brothel in Hillbrow, a very rundown, dangerous part of Jo’burg.

I met the guy (I won’t mention his name as he was a lovely man, not at all like the monstrous Bungu) and we struck up an unlikely friendship. Here was this Black Consciousness (by definition anti-white) poet befriending a young white guy. The police had beaten him badly and all but destroyed his left knee. He’d been unable to get proper medical attention for fear of being apprehended and lived on painkillers and booze. The hookers cooked for him and cleaned his room and probably provided other services, gratis, to soothe him. He had no interest in discussing politics with me, he just wanted to drink Scotch and talk about books. He was going through a Beckett phase, I guess the absurdity of those plays struck a chord and informed his poems. We had wonderful, wild conversations. He was a very funny man. After a month or so he disappeared back to Durban and I never saw him again, but I never forgot him.

When I sat down to write Nowhere I was fascinated by the idea of a young man, a student who loved Beckett, who had the ambition to be a playwright (as Bungu did) whose life became overwhelmed by his battle against apartheid. Who, after a devastating period of torture and detention, went from being an idealistic pacifist to a stone killer.


Many of your novels involve messed-up family units – what makes this such a compelling theme for you as a writer?
What did Philip Larkin say? “They fuck you up your mum and dad . . . but they were fucked up in their turn.” I suppose I’m fascinated by the whole sins of the fathers thing. The karmic wheel creaking. And the messed-up family is just a metaphor for the broader messed-up society, isn’t it?

You’ve now written three novels that involve Disaster Zondi: do you have any further plans for the character?
You know, as much as I liked Zondi when I wrote Mixed Blood, I had no intention of writing him again. I resisted the idea of creating a series character, which can pigeon-hole a writer. When I was working on Dust Devils a couple of years later Zondi would wake me up at night (I’m serious, he would appear in my dreams and wake me) and insist I put him in the book. I did, and it worked. But when I was done with Dust Devils I was sure I was done with Disaster Zondi, too.

But, for a while, my French publisher, the irrepressible Robert Pépin, has been at me to write another book featuring Zondi. For whatever reason Zondi has quite a following in France. And when I started work on Nowhere I realized Zondi would be a perfect addition to the ensemble cast: an older, jaded, disillusioned Zondi, in the twilight of his career.

Will I write him again? No plans, but it’s not impossible . . .

What does your writing process involve (for instance, initial plotting, research, and then the actual mechanics of writing and redrafting)?
I start off with an image, usually quite random, that often becomes the opening of the book. With Nowhere it was the image of the president of South Africa murdering his wife with a spear in the dining room of his official Cape Town residence. I had no idea where this came from or what to do with it, but I wrote the scene and then Steve Bungu, fully formed, dressed in his check shorts and golf shirt, walked through the door of the dining room and I was off and running.

I don’t like to structure things too tightly, I find this stifling. It tends to encourage formulaic plotting. I like to give my characters their heads, let them surprise me. And new characters just appear as I write, which is great. Like the bushman cop, Jan Assegaai. Zondi walked into a rural police station and there Assegaai was, standing by the window that looked out onto the desert. I had no idea that he’d be there but I loved writing him. (Now there’s a character I could bring back . . .)

Research tends to happen as I write the first draft and it happens in response to what I’m writing.

I bang the first draft out as fast as I can, in around eight weeks. Then, when I understand what I’m writing about, I write draft after draft after draft, honing and refining, for another three to four months.

There has been talk of a film adaptation of Mixed Blood: any further news on that front?
Shit, it’s a slow process. It’s been going on for years, with different producers and screenwriters. Movies are tough. All that money, all that risk. If it happens it happens . . .

What novelists have most influenced your work?
In no particular order: Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Jim Harrison, Pete Dexter, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Graham Greene, Richard Ford, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Ross Thomas. Many, many more . . .

Are you currently working on any new writing projects?
I’ve just finished writing an international espionage novel under a pseudonym. I can’t really say more as publishing deals are still being inked, which is very exciting. But there’ll be more South African books, for sure

Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
Turning on the computer each morning and typing that first word.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? Hobbies, interests etc.
I have a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, so I spend a lot of time in kidland, which is a sweet antidote to my work. I live by the ocean, so swimming and walking on the beach is fun. I read a lot. I do ashtanga yoga every morning before I write.

What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching? Do they influence your writing at all?
I love movies and TV right now is astonishingly good, isn’t it? Series like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were an inspiration. Vince Gilligan, who was the Breaking Bad showrunner and is now doing Better Call Saul, is a real innovator: the structure of his scripts—the way he messes with time—is fascinating.

I worked in movies and TV for years and people have said that my writing has a “cinematic quality” so there’s been some cross-pollination, clearly.

Nowhere can be bought here now and will be available for download on 23rd February

Review: Nowhere by Roger Smith

After last year’s grand guignol excess (in terms of both violence and the vileness of the characters) in the mostly US set home invasion thriller Man Down Roger Smith has toned things down and returned to his home ground of South Africa for his brilliant new novel Nowhere. Anybody who reads this blog regularly (and I know there are a few of you) will know how highly I rate Smith’s work.

When South Africa’s venal, alcoholic president murders his wife in a rage, Steve Bungu (a brilliant creation) sets about fixing it. He starts by murdering the wife’s private bodyguard and then brings in retired detective Joe Louw, via a touch of emotional blackmail, to run a whitewash investigation. Bungu uses Louw’s messed-up, psychopathic son, Leon, as a means of keeping him in line. At the same time, Disaster Zondi, previously from Mixed Blood and Dust Devils, is sent to Nerens (in Afrikaan the Nowhere of the title) to arrest and bring to justice Apartheid relic, and white power ‘General’, Magnus Kruger, for the murder of a young black man.

This sets in motion a complicated tale of revenge and the abuse of power. As Joe Louw realises that Bungu’s motives for blackmail go back to his apartheid days as an activist, Zondi also comes to realise that Kruger might just be innocent of the murder he’s in the frame for, but responsible for something equally as dark and unpleasant. And as the two initially separate investigations begin to coalesce in odd ways, blood begins to flow.

In many ways Nowhere is the archetypal Roger Smith book, in that it draws on his familiar themes of messed-up family units (especially Sacrifices and Capture) and the messed-up politics of South Africa (in particular Dust Devils) and pulls them together in a way that he’s never quite managed before. It also creates in Steve Bungu the finest villain of Smith’s career (which is quite a feat, because I personally feel that Smith writes the best villains around). He is an awful, Machiavellian character, and utterly ruthless, but he also has his reasons. He wasn’t born that way, but moulded by the horrific sins of apartheid. The reader understands the reasons for what he does, even though they will undoubtedly, and with good reason, despise his methods. Smith also creates in Joe Louw and Disaster Zondi two sympathetic characters. Some of the terrible decisions that Louw makes following his blackmail (one of which leads to a massacre) come from promises he made to his dying wife. He does bad things, but he’s not a bad man. Zondi is a shell of the person he was in Dust Devils, but somewhere along the line he develops a newfound taste for his job and an increased sense of worth. Even a villain like Magnus Kruger is given some depth and shade for his crimes and venality.

Nowhere is brilliantly written with a narrative propulsion that kept me reading into the night. Smith has always been able to plot with the best of them, but Nowhere really marks a step up: the plotting is superbly measured and lends an epic feel to the proceedings. Smith also tones back the violence and sadism that, I felt, marred the otherwise excellent set-up of Man Down, and uses it as a part of the plot and as a means to explore character. Yes, it is brutal, but not excessively so and entirely in keeping with the storyline. The characters are also among the best that Smith has created. I can’t recommend Nowhere highly enough. If there’s any justice in the literary world then it should bucketloads of both Kindle and paperback copies. Nowhere should be Smith’s real breakout success.

Review: Zulu by Caryl Feréy

I grabbed this recently while on a book expedition in London. I’d never heard of either the author or the book before, but the blurb appealed to me. It pitched the narrative as somewhere between ultra-violent noir and John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener.

The story basically concerns the murder of a young, affluent white student in Cape Town. The violent killing has a suspected sexual motive, and seems to have been done in a senseless frenzy. Ali Neumann, an emotionally repressed detective, and his team (Dan, intelligent but weak, and Brian, angry and self-destructive) soon discover a second killing that then leads them down a path into political machinations, a new meth-based drug that sends users into a violent frenzy, and conspiracies pitting black against white (and vice-versa). As the bodies pile up (and boy, do they pile high in this), and the tale develops more twists than fusilli, this really does develop into a gripping novel.

Roger Smith’s crime fiction has made South Africa seem like a very scary place (somehow even scarier than the very violent reality), but Feréy’s novel makes Smith’s work read like fucking Cider With Rosie in comparison (with the exception of the astonishingly black Man Down). The moment a major character is killed off in the first quarter was the point I realised that all bets were off in this story. Anybody could die at any time. And they do – lots of them – in very violent and gruesome ways. It is brutal stuff. It is also beautifully paced: starting slow, but building momentum as the tale progresses, until the pages seem to be practically turning themselves at the end. Superbly plotted, with a keen eye for a post-Apartheid political scene where neither black lives or white lives matter so long as the folks at the top make a profit and maintain power, and well told, Zulu does somehow meld Le Carré with neo-noir to create something fresh and new – and in the process becomes a dreadful advertisement for South African tourism. Highly recommended.

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.

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.

Review – Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith

One of my real pleasures in life is finding a new author (new to me, that is) whose work I enjoy as much as the old masters. Discovering the novels of South African author Roger Smith was just one of those occasions. Dust Devils was the easily one of the finest books I read during 2011 (not an easy feat, considering I polished off quite a few novels that year), and it was definitely one of those that stayed with me long after I’d finished the final page.

So once I knew that his latest, Ishmael Toffee, was available on Kindle I decided to download it asap. Let’s just say it’s not a decision I regretted.

The story involves an ex-gang killer Ishmael Toffee who has murdered more men with a knife than he cares to remember, but has since lost the appetite for killing. Whilst in prison, he discovers that he is good at something else other than killing – gardening, which comes in handy when he is released. Once out of prison, he becomes a gardener for a rich white lawyer and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the man’s young daughter, who treats Ishmael as a human being rather than as a prisoner. When Ishmael discovers that the girl is being abused by her father, he decides to go on the run with her and get justice through the system. But when that fails, he realises that he has to go back to the knife…

Ishmael Toffee introduces and humanizes a character who in the wrong hands could have come off as a real piece of shit. He’s a villain who has realised that his previous existence is no longer what he wants and chooses the quiet life instead and turns himself into a regular human being. He becomes a hero the moment he chooses to help a girl who can’t help herself, and makes us root for him. And he becomes tragic when he sees that the South African system is weighted in the favour of rich white men and that the one thing he wanted to avoid is the only thing that can save the girl…

Ishmael Toffee is another superb piece of writing from an author who is fast establishing himself as one of the best around. It is beautifully paced, covers a dark topic with a certain amount of sensitivity and is populated with fully rounded human beings. It is a cracking read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

And Falling, the free short story at the end, is a cracker, too. Another direct hit for Roger Smith!