Book review: Mixed Blood by Roger Smith

Mixed Blood
by Roger Smith
Serpent’s Tail, 2009 (Kindle edition).

The reader is plunged right into the action of this scorching (in several senses of the word) novel, by being introduced to John Hill, his heavily pregnant wife Susan and their 4-year-old son Matt, as the family prepares dinner in their beautiful, rented Cape Town home. Their peace is rudely shattered when two armed thugs burst into the room and grab Susan, threatening her with a gun.

The Hills live in an exclusive, gated community on the hills above the city. Many houses are still under construction, including the one next door. The man guarding this house witnesses the invasion – he has noted Hill (who is Amercian) as Hill is the only person he’s ever met who has called him “Sir”. The man is called Benny “Mongrel”, named after the gang which took him in as a young man. As a baby, Benny was thrown onto a garbage dump by his mother, but the crying newborn was rescued by a street woman who looked after him. That occasion, we are told, was the last time in his life that Benny cried. He’s lived a life of being abused and being the abuser, spending time in prison and dishing out violent attacks on guards and fellow-prisoners alike. He has a brutalised face and is covered in tattoos that proclaim his criminal past. Now, however, he is older and wants to go straight. After leaving prison he’s taken a miserably paid job as a night security guard, spending his time with the old dog that has been assigned to him, an animal whose loyalty and friendship gradually breaks down Benny’s locked-in emotions.

The story is non-stop, switching between Benny’s and John Hill’s (not his real name) perspectives as they pursue their hopeless agendas. Another main character soon enters the fray – Rudi “Gatsby” Barnard, perhaps the most corrupt and fattest cop in detective ficton. His nickname comes from his preference for eating gatsbys, baguettes stuffed with steak, eggs, chips and other similar ingredients. Barnard is infamous among the “flats”, the extensive slums in which “half breeds” (as Barnard thinks of them) live their lives of drug addiction, crime, prostitution and welfare scams, necessitated or driven by extreme poverty. He was a senior cop under the apartheid regime, and has not changed any of his views since then. He’s built up a file of information on his colleagues, so manages to live his life exactly as he wants, exacting cruel punishments and, aware that he’s getting no younger and that he can only keep ahead of the game for so long, on the lookout for any opportunity for self-preservation.

His possible nemesis is soon introduced to us in the form of Disaster Zondi, a sort of internal affairs cop from Johannesburg, who is running an anti-corruption investigation. He’s an old victim of Barnard’s, and knows that it will be a real challenge to find any evidence or witnesses against him, given his network of intimidation.

The novel constantly switches between these and other protagonists, showing us the awful brutality, misery and desperation in which almost all the population live. A few people live a pampered life, heavily guarded and protected from the other 99 per cent of their fellow-citizens. This book is not about them or about the professional classes, but is about the awful cycle of violence and cruelty, in big and small ways, that almost everyone suffers. Benny, for example, lives in a shack in which he can’t stand up and in which he can touch the walls by stretching out his arms. He is allowed to empty his slop bucket once a week. When his supervisor tells him he’ll lose his job if he does not get clean and press his shirt, his (equally poor, one assumes) neighbour charges him for borrowing her iron.

The pace of the book and the sheer number of events (either in the present or as back-story) never allows the reader to get mired in the misery or to dwell on one single aspect of the shocking state of this society. For every action or character that we start to condemn, there is a mitigating experience that shows us all too well how someone has reached the point they have (except possibly Bernard who is almost completely unsympathetic instead of, like all the other characters, only partially so). The plot is so fast, as all the players interact in predictable and unpredictable ways, that one is simply carried along to the inevitable conclusion. As well as this, there are innumerable little touches, such as the origin of characters’ names and nicknames, that pull the reader right into this maelstrom of a world. A fantastic book, and one I highly recommend for its heady mix of social conscience, great sense of place, and exciting plot.

I purchased this e-book as part of an Amazon promotion.

About Mixed Blood at the author’s website. This page includes quotes from many reviews, with links to them. Blog reviews include Mack Captures Crime (it was Mack who encouraged me to try this author), International Noir Fiction, Crime Beat and Krimiblog. There are also links to many newspaper or magazine reviews, as well as admiring comments from some well-known authors.

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