Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Henry Holt and company, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8050-8875-5. 304 pages.
Sometimes, what I really want to read is a scorched earth, no prisoners, no quarter, no good guys just degrees of badness, thriller. It's like running Sodium hydroxide through the plumbing, it cleans out the pipes. This is why I was happy that I came across Roger Smith's Mixed Blood.
Jack Burn has a gambling problem. Back in the U.S., a large debt put him in the middle of a robbery that left a cop dead. Jack escapes with a large part of the loot and takes his pregnant wife and young son to Cape Town, South Africa. With a new identity and lots of money, Jack feels pretty safe until a random home invasion by a couple of drug dealing gang-bangers puts him in the sights of Rudi "Gatsby" Barnard, a physically and morally repugnant and corrupt cop. Rudi senses that there is more to Jack than just another American expat. Also drawn into the picture are vengeance seeking ex-con Benny Mongrel and Zulu police investigator Disaster Zondi who wants to settle an old score and at the same time take down a bad cop.
Mixed Blood is a solid thriller with the plot, action, and violence that make this type of thriller enjoyable. But while I thoroughly enjoyed it as a thriller, there is something much more that makes it stand out for me. This is the role South Africa plays in the story. Consider Rudi "Gatsby" Barnard. His nickname comes from the signature South African sandwich, the gatsby, that he favors (see the photo). With his horrible body odor, sumo-sized gut, air bag-sized butt cheeks and a love of "Jesus Christ, gatsbys, and killing people" you might dismiss him as a caricature of the bad cop. But Rudi is a holdover from South Africa under apartheid. Do a Google search with the terms apartheid and apartheid hit squads and you will see that Rudi is based on fact.
Cape Town itself is a character in the story. Gatsby rules the aeolian sand flat known as Cape Flats. It blasted by winds in the summer and many areas flood in the winter. Here are the government-built townships where non-whites were forced to move; the Flats were apartheid's dumping ground. They are a place of terrible poverty, drug abuse, and gang violence. In contrast, Jack Burn and his family live on the wealthy Atlantic side. I recommend a visit to Roger's web site where there is a video narrated by him. There is also a slide show of images of Cape Town and Cape Flats that will give you a good picture of the settings in the book.
I enjoyed Mixed Blood as a straight-up thriller and also for the intense sense of place that Roger was able to weave into the story.
Recommended highly for readers who like thrillers and don't mind a bit of stomach churning violence.