Author of the Month

Name: Roger Smith

First Novel: Mixed Blood

Most Recent Book: Capture

' of the most powerful reads you will find this year.'

As four-year-old Sunny Exley drowns in the cold waters off a luxury beach house, her father, Nick, smokes weed on the shore and her mother, Caroline, is lost in the arms of a lover. Hidden on nearby boulders, rent-a-cop Vernon Saul watches the child die and chooses to act only when it is too late.

In the days following Sunny's death, gutted by grief and guilt, Nick falls under the spell of Vernon who presents himself as a friend in time of need. When the sinister Vernon's true motives are revealed, Nick is drawn into a spiral of manipulation and murder that leaves him fighting for his sanity and his life.

In this, his latest offering from those clever people at Serpent’s Tail, Roger Smith solidifies his growing reputation as a go-to-author for those readers hungry for noir fiction.

From the first page we are drawn in to his character’s lives and only released with those last two final words. Vernon Saul is the first person we meet. He watches, hidden from view, while a child drowns and as such is one of the most effective introductions into the heart and mind of a character that I have read in many a year. Show, don’t tell indeed.

Vernon is a vile man, but such is Smith’s drawing of him that we can’t help but feel a touch of empathy for him. As we do for all of the characters in the book, despite knowing better. Saul is as much a victim as those around him but he reaches for power in any way he can, preying on any perceived weakness. He’s like a puppet-master who collects damaged people and worms his way into their lives, while he works out the means by which he can take the most advantage.

The various parties to the drowning are complicit in the event and are convincingly drawn in to the whirlpool of guilt. The dangerous actions that follow are drawn with a shocking familiarity that result in one of the most powerful reads you will find this year.

The prose is sharp when needs be and lyrical when the author judges it’s time for you to take a breath and a short break from the electric pace. Smith’s work hits home with great force. ‘Capture’ is an unflinching view of a society at war with itself and demands to be read. Unmissable.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) Did you choose to write crime fiction or did crime fiction choose you?
Since I was a kid I wanted to write crime fiction, but during the apartheid years in South Africa that seemed to be beside the point: there was a far greater crime to talk about. Then one day in 2007 I said to myself, “Okay, this is it. Time to see if you can write that crime novel.” So I sat down and wrote my first book, ‘Mixed Blood’. I had very few expectations and no sense at all that I was doing something that would completely transform my life.
2) Could you describe the “jumping off” point for ‘Capture’?
Over the last couple of years I’ve become fascinated with 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 ruling party, that the ex-commissioner of police was sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption and gangsterism 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.
3) Your books are very much rooted in a modern South Africa. Do you ever see yourself going back into its history?
Well, I’m planning a book set partly in Johannesburg in the 1980s, but I’m not sure that counts as “history.” But, no, I have no interest in writing a period novel.
4) You have gone for a more psychological thriller “feel” with ‘Capture’ than your previous books. Tell us why?
After my third book, ‘Dust Devils’, which was my “cinemascope road movie” about contemporary South Africa, I 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 heads 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.
5) The first character we are introduced to in ‘Capture’ is Vernon Saul: a deeply disturbed individual indeed. What drew you to someone like him?
It’s common knowledge that South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world, what’s perhaps not as well known is that on the Cape Flats—Cape Town’s sprawling mixed-race ghetto—there’s an epidemic of child abuse and child murder. Only in the last few years has this been openly acknowledged, and every hospital in the area now has a child abuse unit, but generations have been warped by this sickness.

Vernon Saul - a man who grew up on the Flats, was sexually abused by his father and has become a violent and manipulative sociopath - is a character born out of the flip side of picture-postcard Cape Town.
6) When you look back on your oeuvre, what are you most proud of?
There is a particularly South African brand of violence and savagery. I’d like to believe that my books reflect it.
7) We meet some incredibly damaged people in your books. How do you research them?
I do a lot of research, of course. For ‘Capture’ I spoke to psychologists who work with abused children on the Cape Flats.

My first job was a cartoon animator, and I’ve always been fascinated by movie special effects, so writing Nick Exley in ‘Capture’ - who has developed a motion capture system - wasn’t that tough, although I had to bone up on all the latest technology.

The villain, Piper from ‘Wake Up Dead’, evolved after a series of intense interview sessions with an ex-convict from the Cape Flats. Before I started writing ‘Dust Devils’ I took a research trip to KwaZulu-Natal, visiting places that resembled the town in the novel, which (of course) is imaginary.

For the rest, it’s reading as much as possible, talking to as many people as possible. I also draw on personal experiences. As a teenager in Johannesburg, I watched white cops mow down black school kids my age during the ’76 youth uprising. A few years later I was drafted into a white army fighting a meaningless bush war against older versions of those black kids. Disaster Zondi, the Zulu investigator from ‘Mixed Blood’ and ‘Dust Devils’ is one of those kids 25 years on. And Mixed Blood’s rogue cop, Rudi Barnard is a composite of unpleasant Afrikaners I met in the military.
8) What is the method to your writing? Are you very strict with yourself when you are embarking on a book and during the writing process?
I try to be strict. I like to write a first draft very quickly (what did Terry Southern say about ‘out of the old gut onto the goddamn page’?) and I work seven days a week until it’s done. I do many revisions, but allow myself a slightly more relaxed schedule for those.
9) What are you planning for your next novel?
I’m busy revising ‘Sacrifices’, my new South African thriller. For the first time I haven’t created a villain, just two people at war with the darkness in themselves. Interesting to write.
10) What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
I’m not big on formulaic mysteries or police procedurals and have always enjoyed dark, twisted crime fiction like ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith, ‘The Killer Inside Me’ by Jim Thompson and ‘The Hunter’ by Richard Stark.