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'Wake Up Dead' Alive With Cape Town's Hope, Horror

Wake Up Dead

I've long maintained that Elmore Leonard writes the best first sentence in the crime-novel business. A few opening words and there you are, inside the story, having to know who these people are and what they're up to.

Roger Smith displays a similar talent for opening lines. Take the first sentence of his just-published, second Cape Town thriller, Wake Up Dead: "The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore." Try not to read on after that!

Smith, a South African, was a writer of screenplays (mostly for African television) before he made the transition to novels. You can see that experience reflected in Wake Up Dead's pacing and construction; short, fast-moving scenes tumble one on top of another. After dinner, Roxy and Joe get carjacked by two black "tik-heads" (meth heads to us). In the process, Joe gets shot in the leg. And Roxy, who escaped a bad American childhood to almost reach the top of the modeling world, impulsively picks up a gun and shoots her husband "right between the eyes." Enter a whole cast of the socially damned, among them Ernie Maggott, a sadistic cop who carts his 6-year-old son along with him on his rounds; Piper, a sociopathic killer pursuing his just-released jailhouse wife; and Billy Afrika, a mixed-blood policeman turned mercenary to whom Joe owes a load of money.

Wake Up Dead pounds you like a migraine with unrelenting action and violence. Yet it's only as brutal as its setting, the area of the South African capital known as the Cape Flats. This was where the city's nonwhite residents were shoveled during apartheid and left to fend for themselves. Apartheid may be gone, but many of its problems remain unresolved and its damage unhealed.

Smith's South Africa evokes the similarly toxic and seething slums of the Oscar-nominated movie District 9 and the real-world crisis of xenophobia and segregation barely masked by that sci-fi thriller's gore and goop. Smith wants us to be well aware that poverty, corruption and profound despair are still mostly all there is to life in the flats.

Wake Up Dead is both horrific to read and impossible to put down. Violence and degradation make up its landscape; survival is its characters' only allowable dream. As Billy Afrika muses, "Growing up poor has a way of focusing the mind."

What keeps you reading are Smith's skillfully cast hints of hope for Billy Afrika, or Roxy, or Ernie Maggot's small, sad son. It's as though we can't give up on these people, because we're the only ones left who haven't.

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