I read both of Smith's first two novels (including #2 Wake Up Dead
) in one fell swoop, part of a larger project I'm fiddling around, trying to see if/how it might develop. (If you're interested...I'm interested in the explosion of South African crime fiction since '94... what, how, why, who. Other than having an assumption that pop culture embodies and enacts a complex and intriguing approach to social issues, cultural values and beliefs, and the knotted tangle of who "we" are -- I haven't any predetermined theses. And I'm a fan of crime fiction.) But I'm not going to spend a ton of time boring you with a tedious "real-time" performance of how the project evolves. Instead, a quick "review" here and then a couple of open issues (that I'll address on the other's review
and) that Smith's two novels provoked me to consider.
So, do they work as crime fiction? Yes, undoubtedly. But I almost read on a bell curve. At first, Mixed Blood
's outsized grotesqueries seemed cartoonish, in the bad way. A bad cop isn't just corrupt--Smith returns again and again to his sweating flaps of flesh, his hemorrhoidal pain, his flatulence. I mean again, and again
. The prose is all staccato emphatics, and the characters are all exclamation points -- the literary equivalent of ALL CAPS. But as this first novel wore on, the sheer cussed pervasiveness of these exaggerated perversities began to hit home, to shape an Ellroy-like (Ellrovian?) worldview that was bleak, unsettling, provocative--and not simply 2-d shenanigans. Every secondary, even tertiary character gets the treatment, and the book becomes an expressionistic collage of the worst visions of human behavior. The second novel opens with a whiz-bang viciousness that's similarly well-drawn, the protagonist there sitting down to dinner with a "cannibal" and a "whore." Yet by the middle of that novel, the chiaroscoro began to return to crude black and white, at least for this reader. Without spoiling anything, the author seemed to rely on too easy a set of shortcuts and stock types, and the book's second half seemed more a ready-made drag to me. Drag is perhaps overstating it -- you rush along, but. . .
. . . it's also tied to a similar problem arc, over the two novels, in plotting. In the first half of Mixed
, Smith starts with a couple of cool kicks to the solar plexus but then spends a lot of time wandering through his gallery of grotesques, but (like the best of Elmore Leonard) he keeps throwing balls in the air, and by the end he's got a whole constellation of interconnected shit flying around. I started Wake
with heightened expectations, but... as one character notes late in the second novel, a sudden collision of a couple of subplots and personalities could be coincidence, or it could be destiny, and she opts to read events as destiny. I am afraid it seemed increasingly like the cartoon happenstances familiar to overdetermined noir. (I don't want to spoil anything, but a repeatedly noted "extra" is so portentously noted, again and again and again, that when the character emerges more forcefully to put the bow on another subplot, and conveniently collide with two other subplots, I was rather annoyed.)
Smith's got loads of talent, and these will both please more hardcore fans of the genre, looking for some of these kicks. But I namechecked Ellroy and Leonard, and Smith's got neither the brutal existential heft of the former nor the well-honed attention to character of the latter... yet. He's worth paying attention to...