Crime Beat: Roger Smith on his latest, Dust Devils
It’s been three years since Roger Smith broke – with somewhat of a big bang – onto the crime fiction scene, both here and internationally with Mixed Blood. The following year he brought out Wake Up Dead and earlier this year came Dust Devils which has grounded his reputation in the high action, high body count zone of the genre. What Roger calls ‘dark crime fiction’. Somewhat of an itinerant these days – he’s doing occasional sojourns in Thailand – we caught up with him recently and stuck him under the hot lights:
Crime Beat: You have written elsewhere that you ‘heard’ the voice of your character, the CIA operative Bobby Goodbread, talking about capturing Mandela before the rest of the story occurred to you. What were you reading that led to the CIA connection? Or had this idea been around for some time?
Roger Smith: Years ago I stumbled upon an obscure web interview with an ex-CIA operative who was undercover in South Africa in the early 1960s, based at the US consulate in Durban. He claims he got wind that Nelson Mandela – on the run from the South African security police – would be in the Durban vicinity on a certain day. The CIA guy alerted the SA cops and Mandela went to prison for 27 years. True story, or so the man says. This stayed with me, and became the catalyst for my Goodbread character in Dust Devils.
Crime Beat: Once you’d got the premise for your story did the rest of it tell itself fairly quickly? Were you aware of an end point?
Roger Smith: Well, it’s always about the characters, isn’t it? The notion of some ex-CIA black ops type, now in his seventies and dying of lung cancer, was appealing to me but only in relation to his son, a forty-something journalist who had been very much of the Left during the apartheid years, but is now battling to place himself in a country that has become (to him) the graveyard of idealism. When he is framed for the murder of his wife and children, and on the run, his only ally is his oldest enemy: his father.
I like that old saw that you should make your characters suffer. And then make them suffer even more. So I knew that I would take this journalist, Robert Dell, to the ninth circle of hell, but I didn’t have the road map charted beforehand. I like my characters to have their say and I like to be surprised as I write.
Crime Beat: Surprised in what way? Do you have an anecdote here?
Roger Smith: The battle lines of Dust Devils were clearly drawn: I had Dell’s quest for vengeance, I had the difficult relationship between Goodbread and Dell, I had the antagonist in Inja Mazibuko and I had the innocent in the form of Sunday, the young girl Inja has bought to marry for the darkest of reasons.
I’d written around forty pages, and things were going well, when I had an unexpected visitor late one night: Disaster Zondi woke me and demanded to be in the book. I told him to get lost and went back to sleep. But in the morning I realised I couldn’t ignore him, even though I’d had no intention of ever writing him again after Mixed Blood (I have no interest in creating a series). So I listened to Zondi a little more, and he told me that he was from the same village as Mazibuko and the two had a history, that he was an enemy of Inja’s boss, the Minister of Justice, and (crucially) that he had a very powerful connection to Sunday. Persuasive, stuff. So I put Zondi on probation and wrote another fifty or so pages and liked them. So he stayed.
Would Dust Devils have worked without Zondi? Yes. Is it a better, more complex book with him in it? Definitely. The alchemy of writing.
Crime Beat: You’ve also written elsewhere that Dust Devils is not a love letter to the new country, nor is it. You’ve moved the locale from the Cape Flats via the winelands to the dusty back hills of KwaZulu. The landscape is wrecked, the communities are wrecked, here is fear, revenge killings, taxi wars. And the hospitals are collapsing under the strain of poor administration, insufficient funding and rampant HIV/Aids. It is a vision of purgatory.
Roger Smith: Or a snapshot of contemporary South Africa? What was I saying about the ninth circle of hell? Dust Devils views South Africa through a noir prism and I make no apologies for that. But I don’t believe I’m exaggerating.
Crime Beat: The people moving through this hell are figures from a Hieronymus Bosch painting: brutal men with brutal solutions to the way they negotiate life. It’s a Hobbesian life with a high body count. The fascinating thing is that this bleak view has proven a winning formula for you given the book’s success, particularly in Germany. Why do you think this is?
Roger Smith: I wrote Dust Devils for myself. It was only after I was done that I thought about how South African readers would respond to it, and (of course) I was curious about how it would travel. What’s been very gratifying is that it has received great reviews in SA, US, UK and Germany, and they’re all very similar, responding to the book as a tough, violent, pedal-to-the-metal thriller set against a vivid socio-political backdrop. Pretty much what I set out to write, actually. It’s good to know that my brand of dark crime fiction has a readership out there.
Crime Beat: At the centre of Dust Devils is a man diseased in body and mind. His body is ravaged by HIV, his mind, or rather his conscience has been destroyed by the violence of the apartheid years. Inja Mazibuko is a dog of the regime. A servant who was made in MK’s military camps. Inja can be read as a failure of the struggle to achieve peace and democracy.
Roger Smith: Apartheid South Africa produced a stream of monsters, ready to go out and slaughter and maim and torture in the name of god and country. Some of them, like Eugene de Kock, became lightning rods and will end their days in prison. Most are still running free. The Left produced its own monsters. The Inja Mazibukos are out there, and South Africa has to acknowledge paternity.
Crime Beat: Dust Devils sees the return of Disaster Zondi, who first appeared in Mixed Blood. Since then his life has unravelled considerably, and he, too, is lost in a form of self-destruction. He finds a temporary reprieve in the arms of a Belgian doctor, and then it is back to the fray. Like Inja he represents a failure of the system.
Roger Smith: Unconsciously, I always seem to end up creating parallel characters in my books. The ex-CIA hit man, Bobby Goodbread, and the ‘dog of the regime’ (thanks, Mike) Inja Mazibuko, are very similar people. And so are the journalist, Dell, and the ex-investigator, Zondi. Both Dell and Zondi come from the struggle against apartheid, and both are at odds with a consciousness that is in the ascendancy in South Africa.
There are also parallels around family. Dell has lost his wife and children in a state-sanctioned act of violence. Zondi, an increasingly alienated sex-addict, returns to the small town he grew up in on a fool’s mission to save a girl who may or may not be his daughter from being sold into marriage to Inja Mazibuko. He has to face the superstition and cultural tics that were bred into him, no matter how sophisticated and sceptical he is. This made him a fascinating character to write.
Crime Beat: The thing with Zondi though is that he comes to represent a kind of hope, an ambivalent, brittle hope, but hope nonetheless. Do you see him that way?
Roger Smith: I’m not sure if he represents hope. For me he represents the South African black intelligentsia who (though they are hardwired to support the regime) are increasingly uncomfortable with the rise of useful idiots spewing a brand of rhetoric that appeals to the masses. Which way they’ll jump I don’t know. But it’ll be interesting to watch.
Crime Beat: No doubt there is a new Roger Smith on the horizon. Or maybe closer than the horizon. Can you give us a hint of what’s to come?
Roger Smith: My fourth book, Capture, will be out in mid-2012. It’s a little different from my first three in that it deals far more with the devils within, exploring the dark acts supposedly ‘good’ people are capable of when pushed to extremes.