Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review of Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith (Serpent’s Tail, 2010)

Billy Afrika is an ex-cop turned security mercenary.  After the charge he was guarding in Iraq is killed he heads back to South Africa, looking for the pay he’s owed.  American ex-model Roxy Palmer has washed up in Cape Town, married to Joe, a gunrunner and owner of the security firm for whom Billy works.  After dining out with a despot keen to secure a new wave of arms for an obscure African war Roxy and Joe are carjacked at the gates to their house by two lowlifes from the Cape Flats, the sprawling ghetto outside the city.  Joe is shot and left for dead, the thieves speeding away with an attaché case full of cash.  Caught in the heat of the moment, Roxy makes a decision that ties her fate to her attackers and to Billy Afrika.  It’s a decision that plunges them both into the gangland underworld of the Flats, a place no-one wants to be.

If you’re heading on holiday to South Africa do not pack this book; indeed, the South African Tourist Board probably has a contract out on Smith’s head.  It’s difficult to think of a crime that it is not committed in Wake Up Dead - armed robbery, murder, theft, blackmail, rape, fraud, bribery, assault, kidnapping, cannibalism, abandonment, carjacking, drug dealing, the harvesting of body parts; the list is endless.  And they happen multiple times.  In other words, Wake Up Dead is not for the faint hearted.  From its inception it’s a fast moving, violent tale, whose pace and body count rises as it progresses to its bloody conclusion.  Few of the characters have any redeemable qualities; one way or another they are all on the make, scrabbling and fighting to stay alive and out of each other’s clutches.  And yet it is oddly compelling, sucking the reader into a gritty, gripping story that is full of twists and sucker punches.  At times the violence seems a little gratuitous, but in the main illustrates the social realities of gang culture in the ghetto and prison, and the cheapness and tenuous nature of such lives.  Given the pace and intricacies of the interlocking subplots, the story could have easily slipped into a narrative mess, but Smith writes with an assured hand that keeps everything in motion but straightforward to follow.  I was hooked from the start, caught in the headlights as the carnage and life histories of its victims unfolded on the page.  The most visceral, action packed rollercoaster ride of a novel I’ve read this year. 


pattinase (abbott) said...

Been sitting on my shelf for two years. Maybe I will read it next.

Chris Enstad said...

Rob, Roger Smith is quickly becoming one of my favorites. This is the only book of his I haven't read (saving it for now). His latest Sacrifices transcends the Crime genre with its shakespearian take on the injustices of modern day Capetown. I hope to read a better book this year but I'll be surprised if I do.