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: 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.