Mixed Blood

At the risk of hyperbole, it should be stated flat-out that MIXED BLOOD by Roger Smith is one of the most impressive thrillers you are likely to read this year. It’s a seething story of desperate characters doing equally desperate and violent things in a setting most of us know only from the evening news. And even more impressive is the fact that it’s his first novel.

A warm, windy Cape Town, South Africa evening is suddenly turned into a nightmare when two young, drug-addled gang-bangers with guns break into the home of Jack Burns, his 4-year-old son and his pregnant wife. In a split second, Burns overtakes the home invaders and kills them both in front of his family — a bad enough situation for anyone, but worse when you consider that he and his family are hiding from the law in Cape Town.

A few years earlier, Burns agreed to take part in a bank robbery back in the U.S. in an effort to clear his gambling debt. A police officer was killed, and Burns fled with his portion of the stolen cash and then sent for his wife and son to join him.

Across the street from their house, the Burns home break-in is witnessed by Benny Mongrel, an ex-con trying to eek out a straight life as a night watchman for a building site security firm. Benny knows there’s trouble happening at the white man’s house, especially when he sees that the two black kids never leave the scene. But to interfere would be suicide for Benny, so for the moment, he does nothing but watch and wait.
 
Soon, the disappearance of the two young gang-bangers and the car they left near the Burns home is investigated by Rudi Barnard, a fat, corrupt Afrikaner cop with disgusting personal hygiene who loves Jesus Christ and his junk food (he’s known in the neighborhood as “Gatsby,” after the meat-egg-cheese-potato sandwiches on which he lives). But Barnard is also known for his hatred of the blacks and mixed-bloods who populate the area, and for the way he kills them without as much as a second thought. He suspects that Burns knows more than he admits. And later, when an internal police investigation has him in its sights, Barnard sees Burns and his stolen money as the means to his survival.
 
Smith, a Cape Town native himself, spares nothing in his brutal depiction of post-apartheid South Africa, where blacks and mixed breeds live in the impoverished, drug- and crime-filled shadow of the wealthy whites. Characters like Benny and several others think and speak in the patois of the area, but never at the expense of our understanding.
 
The pacing accelerates into high gear by the middle of the third page and eases up only to provide a brief bit of backstory before plunging us back into the spiraling events. And every one of the novel’s characters, regardless of their race, is running from a past they’d rather forget. Burns and Benny, we already know, are running from the crimes of their past.

But so is Burns’ wife, as well as a police detective brought in to oversee the escalating mess. And when the past begins to haunt the once-untouchable Barnard, the novel becomes a relentless series of attempts to stay one step ahead of each other and just make it through one more night.
 
If future works from Smith are as good as this debut, then we are certain to see his name in the list of nominees for most of the major crime fiction awards. If not, well, MIXED BLOOD will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the finest thrillers about and from this troubled corner of the world. And don’t forget to say you heard about it here. —Alan Cranis

Buy it at Amazon.

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1 Comment »

Comment by roger smith
2009-04-28 09:28:14

Mr Cranis, thank you for the wonderful words on my debut.
Best wishes
Roger Smith

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