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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18 thoughts on “Book review: Mixed Blood by Roger Smith

  1. Maxine – What an excellent review (but then, that’s how your reviews are). I’m glad you liked this one. Smith certainly doesn’t spare the reader when it comes to sharing what these people’s lives are like, does he? Still, he does so without either getting mawkish or gratuitous; to me, that takes skill.

  2. Whew, I happy you enjoyed it. I confess I was a bit nervous given how much I recommend Roger’s books. With this wonderful review of Mixed Blood I have no qualms about recommending Wake Up Dead and Dust Devils. Roger gets better with each book and I found Dust Devils the most haunting.

  3. Maxine I must avoid your exciting reviews if I am ever going to get my TBR pile down to a manageable size. Is South Africa the new Sweden as far as crime fiction discoveries are concerned?

  4. Since I started a blog just for African crime fiction you know my opinion on South Africa as the new Sweden Norman. South Africa is a mind-bogglingly complex environment and has issues that non-South Africans are barely, if at all, aware of that make for excellent crime fiction. I have a huge stack of African crime fiction to review and need to take a week off from work and write.

  5. Thanks for this review, incisive as always. I’m reading a less fascinating book set in South Africa, but may drop it and switch to this one.
    I am always leery of books set in countries with a lot of poverty and complicated social issues, as I worry that authors don’t always explain the backstory to their plots, why there is so much poverty, and even why there is crime. It sounds like this book does what it needs to do.
    Malla Nunn said it right as far as I’m concerned because she experienced life under the former horrific regime and she really gets to the heart of matters.
    Even if a book is a terrific thriller, I think it has to be in context of the country’s history and current issues. Or else it could take place anywhere. I read global crime fiction because I like a good mystery but I also want to learn about the country’s people, culture and conditions.

  6. I went to Cape Town years ago and was shocked by the disparity between rich and poor. It’s in these environment’s that crime flourishes and it sounds like this book is set in this background. I must look out for this (probably via my library).

  7. Thanks everyone for such really nice comments. I did have a publisher’s copy of Dust Devils once but I seem to have rehomed it, so now I’ll buy it (happy to!). Kathy, I’d say Deon Meyer and Roger Smith are more similar to each other than Malla Nunn is to either – Malla Nunn is more of a conventional story teller whereas Meyer and Smith are more macho thrillery, but in a good way (very hard to do and make me like a book, I can tell you, as macho thrillers are not my thing. But done well, as with these authors, they can be exhilerating instead of the usual dross.) I’d agree that all three convey a great sense of place, a big plus.

  8. Have you read Margie Orford’s books? I’ve read interviews with her and also saw that she was a speaker at a recent women mystery writers’ conference in Australia. Her books sound good, and she sounds like a very savvy writer. She also did get arrested during the apartheid years and was detained in prison.

  9. I personally can recommend Margie’s books. I’ve read her first three and have her latest on my ebook TBR. She can be graphic in her depictions of the effects of violence but she is never gratuitous or exploitative.

  10. Like Clockwork is Margie’s first Clare Hart novel and it is rough around the edges. Her second, Blood Rose, is set mainly in Namibia. There is a very strong feeling of place in this story. It also goes into the South African occupation. The writing is more polished and the story better constructed. He third, Daddy’s Girl goes back to Cape town and takes place when Clare first started profiling.

  11. Thanks, Mack. I don’t like reading books about child abduction (luckily Mixed Blood was so good – and did not focus on that part too much) so I’ll think about it. Good to know you recommend her, thanks again.

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