This review is based on an ARC of Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith, (the author of Mixed Blood). Wake Up Dead will be published by Henry Holt & Co in February 2010. Roger lives in Cape Town, South Africa. His web site is Roger Smith Books. You can jump to a link of a video trailer for Wake Up Dead as well as links that show the environment in which Wake Up Dead is set here.
First Sentence: "The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore."
Roxy is an American ex-model married to a gunrunner and broker for mercenaries. The book opens with a business dinner where Joe and the elegantly dressed cannibal (he might only have eaten one heart for the cameras) are finalizing a deal.
Unknown to Joe and Roxy, when they leave the restaurant they are followed by two low-level thugs from Cape Flats -- Disco De Lilly and Godwynn MacIntosh. Joe and Roxy are hijacked at the gate to their house, Joe is wounded, and the gangsters leave in Joe's Benz. Roxy makes a decision that leaves her husband dead and her a not-so-grieving widow.
The point of view shifts to Billy Afrika, an ex-cop just back from Iraq where he worked for a contractor providing security services for the U.S. Billy's employment had been brokered by Joe Palmer and Billy would like to know why he hasn't been paid. Arriving back in Cape Town, Billy returns to the Flats needing a weapon. He meets people from his past who will have a part in the story including a detective with the unfortunate name of Ernie Maggott. Ernie remembers Billy from when he also was a Cape Town detective and doesn't remember Billy fondly. He also wants out of the Flats and is looking for the big case to get him promoted.
Meanwhile, Disco De Lilly is consumed by the fear of a psychopath named Piper. Piper is still in Pollsmoor Prison but that doesn't lessen Disco's fear. While in prison himself, Disco was Piper's "wife" and the crude tattoos carved into his body reflect Piper's obsession. Billy and Piper also have a history.
The hijacking, Roxy's actions, the obsession of an imprisoned psychopath, and the return of Billy Afrika start a chain of events that will leave a bloody trail through the Cape Flats and culminate on a Cape Town beach.
Why are there photographs of a knife at the top of this review? It is the Okapi 907E and it has a significant role in the story as the weapon of choice of Piper. Roger Smith wrote me that "the Okapi of choice is the 907 E. It has put many brown men into bodybags. Quite a pretty knife, too." The Okapi has a distinctive shape and knowing what the knife looks like made the story more immediate for me. There is a link to a store selling Okapis at the end of the post.
Wake Up Dead is a crime thriller and there are elements I want to be present if the story is to appeal. Obviously, plot is important. Also, with thrillers you expect a faster pace and more intense action. I also look for a strong sense of place, sharp writing, and well developed characters. If I feel that the story and actions of the characters are plausible, all the better. Books like this are not disposable reads and make me think about them long after I've turned the last page. Wake Up Dead nails everything I want in a thriller.
Thrillers often have complicated and conspiratorial stories. Wake Up Dead is complex with regard to the interaction of the characters but it deals with basic human weaknesses like greed, lust, ambition, and revenge. For me this is a positive, it keeps the story grounded.
The lead up to the scenes of action and violence is very well done. Sometimes you know something is about to happen, other times it's "huh, I wasn't expecting that." Roger's thrillers are very violent but I've never thought that the violence was gratuitous. Brutally honest, yes. He writes about a segment of society where sudden and senseless violence is the norm and he has met the people capable of those acts.
A strong sense of place is something I enjoy in a story. After reading Wake Up Dead, I did some Internet searching, looking at Pollsmoor Prison, photos of former gang members, scenes of Cape Flats. I felt like I already knew those places and people from the descriptions in the book.
Wake Up Dead is written from multiple points of view. These points of view gradually build up a composite image of the people and events and their relationships. In some cases you can see that event A will probably lead to consequence B but other times I found myself sitting there thinking about what I just read.
Roger also has an interesting way with descriptions about people and events, often involving dark humor.
The whore had yellow braids, the dark roots cross-hatching her skull like sutures on a cadaver.
I don't think anyone will have a problem building a mental image from that description.
The cannibal is described as having an elegant French accent leading to this scene
Then Joe gave her the look, invisible to anyone else, and she knew that the men needed a few minutes to talk business. Weapons or mercenaries. Or both.
Roxy stood. "Let's go to the bathroom."
"I don't need," the whore said, clearly new to this part of the game.
The cannibal elbowed her beneath her plastic tits. "Go and piss." Coming from his mouth it sounded almost like a benediction: Go in peace.
In Mixed Blood and now Wake Up Dead I've admired the way Roger builds his characters. He does evil really well though he says the characters write themselves. Piper, for example, is about as scary and real a character a as I have encountered in fiction. Billy you want to root for but he isn't an agent for good. Disco you feel sorry for, his life on a course for destruction, but you wouldn't want to be his buddy. Roxy is a basically good person who does bad things but isn't someone you can consider sympathetic. You know who the characters are and where they came from.
Wake Up Dead is a well done and exciting crime thriller that I recommend highly. It is available for preorder. If you haven't read Roger's first book, Mixed Blood, pick up a copy at the same time. It also is set in Cape flats, has everything I like in a thriller (see above), and a wonderfully nasty detective named Gatsby.
Links to give you insights into the story, the setting, and the characters.
Roger's video trailer for Wake Up Dead.
The Okapi in the photographs came from World Knives where you can buy one for yourself. You can also use it to slice fruit and carve decorative items.
Slide show of Cape Flats and Cape Town on Roger's web site.
Slide show of prison body art with voices of former prisoners.
Photographs of South African prisons by Micheal Subotzky.