Roger Smith – King of South African Noir
All of Roger Smith’s books are events, and the latest – CAPTURE – has solidified his reputation as the king of South African Noir. A character driven thriller, it was described by The Times as “A harrowing psychological page turner. Gripping.” Mike Nicol called it “searing” and “a book that demands to be read”. Here is Mike’s discussion with Roger for Crimebeat about how he came to write CAPTURE:
In tone and style CAPTURE fits perfectly into the growing collection of Roger Smith crime novels. And yet there is something different about this one. It is more intimate. As if the major characters have been skinned and feel everything intensely because their nerves are exposed. It seems that in CAPTURE the focus is on the main characters (Nick Exley and his wife Caroline) and their reactions to a tragedy (and unfolding events) rather than on greater social issues? Which is not to say that the wider social issues are not all too present, just that you seem to have gone for a psychological close-up rather than a socio-political wide-angle approach with this novel.
After my third book, DUST DEVILS, which was my “cinemascope road movie” about contemporary South Africa and all its evils, I instinctively wanted to write something more contained, claustrophobic even, and I seemed to be ready to peel away that extra layer and get deeper into the psyches of my characters. In my first three books my characters were defined pretty much by their actions. In CAPTURE their interior darkness cross-talks with their increasingly desperate and anti-social behaviour.
CAPTURE has been out for some time, how has it been received?
The response from the US (where it has been out for a couple of months) and the German-speaking countries (it was published in translation in late October) has been overwhelmingly positive. Many reviewers have made similar observations to yours, about CAPTURE being more of a psychological thriller, but the consensus is that it is my best book.
CAPTURE starts with a death, nothing unusual there in a Roger Smith novel. But unlike your other novels this death is the result of negligence rather than agency. What made you decide to shift the responsibility for the death from society to the personal?
That wasn’t a conscious decision. I always start with an image, something vivid that comes out of someplace deep and dark and grabs me by the throat. With CAPTURE it was the image of a man sitting on the rocks on a private Cape Town beach watching a child drown in the ocean and choosing to do nothing. I couldn’t shake this picture. I didn’t know who the man was. I didn’t know who the kid was. So I had to find out. And the only way I could find out was to start writing. That’s how it is for me: I don’t write outlines, I mostly don’t know how my books will end, I let the characters jump out at me and take me with them.
The death has truly horrible consequences, especially for those closest to the victim. In almost all respects the agony you write onto their consciences – their souls, for want of a better word – is more intense and visceral than anything you have done before. You seem intent on taking the reader inside the pain?
I became a father for the first time this year. CAPTURE was completed before my wife fell pregnant, but we’d been planning to have a child for a few years so when I was writing I could easily key into the grief and guilt associated with the death of a small child.
If you are in any way conscious you can only be appalled at the epidemic of child abuse and murder in South Africa. The statistics are staggering. I suppose I wanted to write about kids who are robbed of their childhoods: whether they are the unlucky ones who are abused or killed or the so-called lucky ones who are forced to spend their formative years being ferried between gated communities and shopping malls. And I wanted to write about the parents who succeed and the parents who fail. I have been told that CAPTURE is a tough, emotionally challenging read. I take that as praise.
But of course the private tragedy is anything but, it very soon reaches into society exposing all kinds of rot. The man who provides this link is a Smith character to the core: a deeply wounded individual, angry, manipulative, deadly. In this instance it is the scary Vernon Saul. Why is this character of such interest to you?
Vernon Saul grew up on the Cape Flats, the epicentre of South Africa’s child abuse and murder plague. He was abused by his father and — like so many other victims — went on to become an abuser himself. Vernon is all about power. He became a cop to exert his power over people weaker than him. When he was wounded and pensioned out of the police force and became an armed response patrolman in a plush neighbourhood, he started looking for a rich man to manipulate. For him the ultimate expression of his lust for power is to pierce the protective armour of wealth and privilege.
South African society creates people like Vernon Saul in disturbing numbers. Maybe we need to be asking why.
Along with Vernon comes a fascinating twosome: a mother and daughter. The mother has conquered hell but teeters on the edge, her sole purpose the nurturing and safety of her daughter. Her name is heavily laden: Dawn Cupido – part optimism, part a reflection of her slave forebears. She symbolises redemption and the reader comes to feel very deeply for her. Again this motif has occurred before but nowhere as forcefully as here. In the Smith world where life is often nasty brutish and short, she is our hope. Is Dawn Cupido based on real people or on an ideal?
Dawn is a composite of many women I have met. Live in Cape Town and you come across Dawn Cupidos everyday: women who battle to make a life for themselves and their children in a world of poverty, violence and abuse. She is a sympathetic character, but she’s tough and she’ll cross moral boundaries to protect her small daughter, which is why I found her interesting to write.
Again in CAPTURE you have tied up two disparate sides of Cape Town: the lavish expansive rich careless lifestyle of the Atlantic seaboard with the tough, grim conditions of the Cape Flats – apartheid’s dumping grounds. There is huge contrast obviously, but also many similarities. The carelessness with which people treat children being an instance. You are clearly fascinated by this city, it has become almost your metaphor for the way human life is lived, and not only in this country I would imagine.
Over the last couple of years I’ve become fascinated by the effect of crime and corruption on the South African psyche. South Africa encourages a certain moral elasticity. Given the flagrant looting by members of the regime, that the ex-commissioner of police was jailed for 15 years for corruption and gangsterism (only to be released – like Zuma’s buddy Schabir Shaik – on “medical parole” after serving less than a year) and that his successor was recently fired for similar transgressions, a loss of faith in law and order is understandable. And the culture of savagery in South Africa allows some people to forgive themselves their own criminal actions, like the three main characters in CAPTURE who find themselves capable of increasingly toxic and violent behaviour.
So, while many of the themes of CAPTURE are pretty universal, it could only happen in South Africa with its particular brand of lawlessness and it’s increasingly dysfunctional criminal justice apparatus.
And, yes, Cape Town – the most schizophrenic of South African cities – continues to fascinate me.
A word on the title, CAPTURE. It is the perfect title for this book: all these desperate characters captured by their lives. But how did you arrive at the title? Was it an ah, that’s exactly it, type of flash? Or did it ‘dawn’ more slowly as the themes became clearer?
The title came early and quite easily, the most obvious prompt being Nick Exley’s obsession with motion-capture animation. But, as you say, it goes much further than that. It’s a book about a small group of people trapped by their own weaknesses, and caught-up in the fallout of one another’s messy lives.
And of course, that inevitable final question: what’s next? And how far down the track is it?
I’ve had a busy year. I put out an e-original novella called Ishmael Toffee in February, which has turned out to be a reader favourite. Taking a bit of a break from South Africa, I wrote a horror novel called Vile Blood — under the pen name Max Wilde — set in an imaginary America. It’s out digitally now, will be available in print later, and will be published in Germany next year as Schwarzes Blut.
Right now I’m busy with revisions of my new South African thriller, called SACRIFICES. (The one-liner: “When the bad guy is you.”) For the first time I haven’t created a villain, just two people at war with the darkness in themselves. Interesting to write.