Written by Roger Smith — Like Dust Devils and Mixed Blood, Ishmael Toffee sees Roger Smith plucking characters from the different social and racial strata of South Africa and throwing them together in a bleak and harrowing crime story. Released on Kindle, the novella is a great pick-up if you’re eager to read something new by the author while you wait for his upcoming novel Capture which comes out later this year.
Small, illiterate but extremely tough, Ishmael Toffee is hoping to start life anew after being released from prison and managing to find a gardening job. It’s a wonder he’s alive really. In jail he was the assassin, slitting the throats and stabbing anyone who crossed his fellow gang members or grassed to the wardens. He was inspired by a real life killer whom Roger Smith interviewed. Those days are over, however, and from his shanty in the notorious Cape Flats each morning he makes his way over to the rich suburb of Constantia to work for a Mr Goddard.
This rich white lawyer has a six-year-old daughter called Cindy, and a dark secret. He’s a paedophile who frequently rapes his daughter, and this was the cause of his wife’s recent suicide. Florence the maid and Ishmael the gardener separately find out what Goddard is up to and Florence attempts to blackmail him. Struggling with his conscience Ishmael at first tries to stay out of it, but the child is forming an attachment to him that he can’t ignore. Eventually he decides to do the right thing by telling the authorities but instead of arresting Goddard they try to catch Ishmael. So he takes Cindy on the run through the filthy squatter camps and dumps outside Cape Town.
The trouble is a reward is being offered for the child and soon they are pursued not just by the police but by local gangs, private security men and even the one-eyed whore who lives on the landfill site. It’s a perilous flight and as you’d expect Roger Smith paints the action in blood, sweat, tears and the rotting garbage so many lowly souls are forced to live off. The reformed killer knows his violent ways were wrong, but is forced to use these skills again to protect the girl – and we find out just how far he’ll go to save her.
Smith evokes the destitution of the townships extremely well, juxtaposing it with the wealthier side of Cape Town. For Ishmael half a cigarette in the warmth of the sun is a rare treat. The story is told mainly from his point of view, but sections are also taken from Cindy’s perspective and from that of the maid Florence. Each in their own way is damaged and exploited, and each deals with it differently. The only drawback here is that in each case the storytelling a little basic or childlike. It’s authentic – Cindy being a child and Ishael and Florence have little education – but it lacks the variety and sophistication of his other stories.
Still,he manages to pack in a lot of detail showing you what it’s like on the ground for those on the lowest wring in contemporary South Africa where survival really is the width of a knife away. Despite his horrible past you root for Ishmael all the way and come to realise that a noble heart can beat in anybody no matter what their birth or background. Gripping and disturbing, Ishmael Toffee is another great story from Roger Smith.
The publication includes an added bonus – the short story Falling. This features one or two of the characters in Ishmael Toffee and is also a fascinating, dark read.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars