The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

February 18, 2010

Review: WAKE UP DEAD by Roger Smith

First sentence: "The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore."

And for Roxy, it's all downhill here from there. Driven by an anger she didn't know she possessed, she makes a decision that sets in motion a chain of events that leaves blood and body parts strewn across Cape Town as a string of deadly characters enter her life: There's the mercenary, Billy Africa, who wants the money Joe owed him. There are the two low-level gangbangers who are after Roxy for a lot more than the Mercedes Benz they took the night of the hijacking. The prison escapee who is determined to reunite with his "wife," one of the gangbangers. The cop, Eddie Maggott, who's after Roxy because he thinks she had more to do with the hijacking than she's admitted. The Ukrainian whore is lusting after the designer contents of Roxy's closet, and her cannibal friend wants to get back some money he turned over to Joe just before the hijacking. And out on the fringes is a murderous drug dealer who's after the gangbangers for reasons of his own. Roxy would gladly give up the money to save her life and get the hell out of Dodge, but there's just one problem. She's stone broke.
Wake Up Dead is not for the faint of heart. No, seriously. If you think Hannibal Lector is as bad as it gets, walk away now. But if you like a thriller that rides like a rocket, if you like unsympathetic characters that get under your skin like a dirty needle, stop reading this and go get a copy of this book right now. Me? Loved it. Loved it. This is a dark, brutal, and altogether satisfying thriller.

Part of the wonder that is Wake Up Dead, is that Smith works in backstory for each of his characters without any slowdown in the pace, enabling the reader to see motive and emotion behind the actions of even the most vile and irredeemable monster. When the motives and emotions morph into action, the characters become human bumper cars, slamming into and caroming off each other with no regard for life or any of the finer human attributes such as compassion and mercy. 

In simple, evocative prose Smith reveals the appalling underbelly of Cape Town with its racism, its sharp division between the haves and the have-nots, and the systematic tolerance of illegal drugs that allows for the sweeping under the rug of human life when it is not white and moneyed. And Smith exposes it all without any pedantry or patronization or rallying cry to a cause. He simply hands the reader a photograph, that's all. One that definitely won't lure the reader into daydreams of traveling through the tourist-friendly geographic and ethnic realms of wondrous African beauty; no, the Cape Flats is a place where you're more likely to Wake Up Dead. In fact, Roger Smith may just be a one-man wrecking crew for the South African tourist industry. But don't be surprised if he becomes a pillar of support for the South African publishing industry.

Here's a brief excerpt in which mercenary Billy Africa has just arrived back in Cape Town from Iraq:
Billy's journey down memory lane was interrupted when a car sped out of Vulture Street -- Dark City side -- nearly collecting him before it shot off down Main. It was a new BMW 7 series, sporting extras like fat tires, louvers, mud flaps, and a feature that definitely didn't come standard: a man tied to the rear bumper by his ankle, bouncing as he was dragged, leaving a strawberry smear on the dusty blacktop.

On the sidewalk a group of schoolkids, in the grip of the munchies after visiting their dealer, bought cotton candy from a one-legged simpleton. The kids pointed at the Beemer. Laughing fit to puke. The simpleton danced on his good limb -- empty trouser leg flapping -- clapping and whistling through his missing front teeth, enjoying the free entertainment.

Whoever said there's no place like home had got it one hundred percent fucken right.


  1. Wow. That sounds like some book, Naomi. I also see that it will have an audiobook available on March 8th. I'm going to try and find a place for this in my TBR. Thanks for this, Naomi.

  2. I meant every word of the blurb I wrote for this one. Absolutely terrific book. I don't think anyone is writing better crime thrillers than Roger Smith right now. They're violent as hell but they're great with this amazing compulsory vibe to them, and page turners without ever condescending to the reader or being cartoonish. IF there was any justice in this world, Roger would be selling 10,000 copies of his books for every copy of a James Patterson bought.

  3. Michael, don't play this one where the kids can hear it! You-know-who will kill you!

    Dave, indeed it was all you said and maybe more. "Compulsory vibe" - darn, I wish I'd come up with that description. And hey, if there was any justice in this world, Holt would also be publishing and promoting your books.

  4. Weaving in backstory is a challenge for me. I will have to look at how he does it so skillfully.

  5. It's a challenge for me, too, Patti. I tend to drop all the backstory at once, like big bomb, and then have trouble transitioning back to the action. I tried to watch how Roger did it: some of it's in brief flashbacks, some in dialogue, but then I got caught up in the story.

  6. Naomi-would you consider doing a forgotten book for my blog in late March.

  7. Patti, I'd be delighted. How does it work? Do I blog about here on Drowning Machine and send you the link? And is there a particular date you want me to have this ready?

  8. Naomi-why don't you send me the first one and I will post it on my blog. If you do another one, you can post it and I will just post the link. How about 3/26. You can send it to me by the 24th. Just put it right on the body of the email and include a bio. I will find a cover. Any book, any length. Thanks so much.

  9. Will do. Thanks for making it easy for me!