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Written by Roger Smith — When we interviewed Roger Smith a couple of weeks ago, he told us that Capture is his darkest book yet. Can’t argue with that. This novel probes deeply into characters so broken, abused and thoroughly desperate that the voids of blackness within them could easily suck in several nebulae. This truly is the underbelly of the new South Africa and ‘dark’ doesn’t go nearly far enough describing the book.

First we meet Vernon Saul, a former cop who limps on a shot up leg and loves his modified Japanese car, and Motown. Of mixed race, he was brought up in the notorious Cape Flats slums. Now he’s a security guard with a truck, a gun and a Kevlar vest. On his rounds he stops and watches from afar as some rich white folks hold a birthday party in the splendid Cape Town suburb of Llandudno.

The party is for six-year-old Sunny Exley. As her father Nick gets high with a friend on the deck, and her mother Caroline fools around with lover Vlad in the kitchen, Sunny wanders down to the sea to retrieve a toy boat. She falls in and Vernon watches her drown, then makes an act of trying to save and revive her. His bizarre motivation is hard to work out, but a grief-stricken and guilt-racked Nick Exley is taken in by Vernon’s kindness and befriends him.

Across town in the Cape Flats, Vernon keeps an eye on Dawn Cupido and her daughter Brittany. Like Vernon, Dawn is coloured, poor and was raped as a child. Once a meth-head prostitute, she has cleaned up her act somewhat. Now she’s a stripper who frustrates her employer by refusing to slide back into selling her body in the filthy rooms at the back of the venue. She’s struggling to keep her daughter from being taken into care, and is indebted to Vernon who keeps social services off her back. Unless, of course, she crosses him.

Things come to a head when Caroline’s infidelity is revealed to Nick and there’s a violent and bloody confrontation between them. Vernon’s there to pick up the pieces, but soon the large-nostrilled Detective Erasmus is sniffing around. Vernon has computer animation expert Nick pinned down, but Nick has info on Vernon too. To distract Nick, Vernon brings Dawn over to dance for a motion capture video Nick is working on. Dawn smells money, Nick smells woman, and Vernon feels his grip on them slipping. What’s he got planned for them, and can they get out from under his thumb?

In genre terms, Capture steps much further into noir territory than Dust Devils, Smith’s last novel. There’s less action and a far deeper exploration of the characters. This change in pace and focus is handled extermely well by the author. Many crime books present an evil killer who is just evil full stop. But here we get right inside Vernon Saul, see exactly why he’s so nasty, and understand life as he experiences it.  Trouble is, the lives of Smith’s creations are so dirty, mean and morally compromised the book becomes difficult to read. There are touches of dry humour throughout but these glimmers of light struggle to shine through.

The plot isn’t complex but the character-driven storyline is very compelling and Capture has a clever ending. As usual, Smith’s writing is excellent. Nobody can peel back the layers of damaged people and, indeed, a broken society, so poetically. Violence, lust, jealousy, hatred, corruption – the characters can smell these things on one another. And Smith’s writing is so visceral you’ll feel as though you’re there with them. It’s not a nice place to be.

Could there possibly be a happy ending? You’ll just have to find out…

Serpent’s Tail

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

US readers can buy the book here.

Capture will be released in the UK in February.

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