By Roger Smith
Henry Holt and Co.
What the heck is a Gatsby?
No, not the “Great Gatsby” from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel — the thing in Cape Town, South Africa?
Well, when you find out in this smoking hot thriller from Roger Smith it will be one less reason you’ll want to visit Cape Town. You’ll find plenty more here, believe me.
Cape Town is the hideout of choice for misbegotten bank robber Jack Burn after a half-bungled bank robbery. South Africa, the anti-hero protagonist reasons, is enough off the map from U.S. reach, yet with enough civilized amenities to care for his pregnant wife Susan and his four year old son Matt. He’s smart enough to have salted away millions from the heist in a Swiss bank account. Now he just has to lay low in a place with enough civilization to enjoy life — yet with enough chaos to be off the beaten path.
Too much chaos, it seems.
Smith, who lives in South Africa, is certainly no salesmen for Cape Town tourism. But then, the crime and squalor and corruption is exotic enough to make for a fascinating backdrop. At the spine of the book is the seething past of apartheid, and the villainy of certain white Africaaners, personified by Rudi “Gatsby” Bernard, a fat, disgusting, evil cop who gets wind of Jack’s loot because of Jack’s defense of his family when two meth-heads pay a nasty visit. Throw in Benny Mongrel, an ex-con night watchman and Disaster Zondi, a Zulu detective, plenty of sadistic violence and some damned fine thriller writing and pacing and you’ve got a nice debut for a crime thriller writer who puts a new spin to the word “afterburn”.
Alas, while Smith handles the other characters well, he makes “Gatsby” such a one-dimensional cartoonish villain that the novel is ultimately so garish and unbelievable that it really should have had a cover from one of those infamous “shudder pulps” of the 30’s — the ones with dwarf hunchbacks torturing scantily glad dames with red-hot pruning shears.
Still, Smith shows a lot of skill and promise.
One can only hope that the odd ending implies an action-packed sequel and not the end of Jack Burn’s misadventures.