In the late nineties, I spent close to a month in three countries near Africa's tip, and my memories of each nation couldn't be more different. In Swaziland, I recall sipping sweet tea and eating oranges in a dirt courtyard behind a Reformed church. The scents of boiled sadza and stewing meat fill my thoughts of Zimbabwe. But when it comes to South Africa, I mostly remember the bars on the windows in Johannesburg and how every car seemed outfitted with a complicated key system to discourage vehicular theft. It's a rough city, and I only learned how close I came to disaster one night when recounting to an Afrikaner how a group of us got lost on the highway. He explained that a close friend of his had done the same and ended up dragged from his car, doused in gasoline and set ablaze. That sense of ever-present peril thoroughly informs Cape Town-based author Roger Smith's debut novel, Mixed Blood.
John Hill isn't John Hill's real name. Back in America, people once called him John Burn, and then he'd owned a successful business, the honor due a wartime veteran and a picture-perfect family. But as Hill, he's lost everything except his wife and child, and he's barely holding on to them. He thought immigrating to South Africa would keep a stateside criminal secret hidden, and at first it did -- until the two men turned up. A pair of drug-addled Cape Town gangsters broke into his new home, a random transgression, a thrill crime with no plan or purpose. Their mistake. Quick work with a carving knife removed the thugs from the equation, but now the calculus of John's expat life has gotten exponentially more complicated. Unable to go to the police because of his past, he tries to hide the bodies, which soon attracts the attention of a very corrupt cop and a fearsome killer who is himself quick with a blade.
Mixed Blood succeeds most in its portrayal of a stratified city whose social classes differentiate themselves not only by race and wealth, but also by how easily they can avoid violence. That doesn't prove particularly easy for even the most advantaged. In Smith's Cape Town, safety depends less on law than luck. It's an incendiary place where the violence can erupt from as small a matter as taking a wrong turn and where none of its inhabitants have clean hands. Indeed, a back-cover blurb perfectly sums up the novel's nuanced presentation of human depravity: "The bad guy is really bad -- but so are the good guys." Unfortunately, the book doesn't handle religious belief with the same light touch. In fact, Mixed Blood seems to propose an inverse relationship between virtue and piety, with the most believing characters descending to the blackest depths while skeptics avoid the worst degradations. A disappointment, as are a few lurches in the plot. Still, Smith satisfies with a noirish ending and an abrupt denouncement that hits like an enraged heavyweight. Blood may be a bit mixed, but it's a solid hardboiled thriller all the same.
(Picture: 2010 by cliff1066™)