Written by Roger Smith — After several standalone novels, a novella here and there, and dabbling in horror, South African author Roger Smith returns to slightly more orthodox crime fiction with a new Disaster Zondi novel. The unfortunately named Zulu detective first appeared in Mixed Blood, and then the excellent Dust Devils, which both came out five years ago.
Now, Zondi’s department is being wound up and he’ll no longer be tracking down the last miscreants of the apartheid regime. However, one last case lands on his desk – or should that be the passenger seat of his BMW? He’s a flashy fellow after all… Zondi is sent out to the semi-desert of the Western Cape to arrest Magnus Kruger, leader of a far-right Afrikaner movement. They’ve finally got evidence on him, for murder of a black youth.
Kruger’s a big, blond old brute, and seems modelled on South Africa’s most embarrassing white man, the neo-Nazi Eugene Terreblanche. He has led his impoverished followers out to the remote town of Nêrens – Afrikaans for Nowhere – in a pathetic echo of the great Boer Trek of the 1830s. They live in an isolated, whites-only compound called Witsand (white sand) fending off meth addiction, alcoholism, religious zeal, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, while surrounded by Kruger’s collection of apartheid-era statues. The local black cops aren’t really up to snuff, so Zondi goes in alone and, quite remarkably, apprehends Kruger with barely a shot fired.
That’s the one storyline. The other is just as strikingly constructed. Nowhere opens with a bloody set-piece inside the presidential palace near Cape Town, Genadendal. The president of the Republic, easily a pastiche of Jacob Zuma, loses his temper with one of his older wives and kills her with a decorative Zulu spear. Quick thinking fixer Steve Bungu extricates the president by calling the woman’s bodyguard in, shooting him dead, and placing the spear in the bodyguard’s grip.
It won’t be enough, though. The ANC just about has a one-party state under its control, but some pockets of opposition remain and the media will still have a frenzy. So Bungu reaches out to Joe Louw, once South Africa’s most respected and incorruptible white detective, who’s hit rock bottom. A few years back, he shot dead a woman while in pursuit of a suspect and he’s never forgiven himself. Louw agrees to carry out an investigation into the death of Mrs President that will exonerate the great leader. Just what Bungu has on Louw isn’t clear at first, but the overweight detective agrees to the whitewash even though it cuts against his moral grain.
Smith expertly entangles these plotlines. Linking them is Louw’s wayward son Leon, who works for Kruger. Things are further complicated when Kruger’s daughter turns up in Nêrens to mock her father after his arrest. She’s a performance artist and comes up with a funny and daring way of embarrassing him via YouTube. Then there’s the murder of a white farmer on the property next to Kruger’s compound. Van Staaden, a friend of the dead man, goads Zondi into looking into this killing and the two of them eventually team up.
Like Dust Devils, Nowhere has a high tempo and the crime-solving is patterned with intimidation and violence along the way. Don’t get attached to any of Smith’s extensive range of realistic characters, though. Just like George RR Martin, this author has no qualms dispatching a well-developed persona – good or bad – at the drop of a Glock. Brutally.
Every shade of skin within the rainbow nation seems to be represented, and the myriad racial and cultural prejudices that remain in South Africa are given the Roger Smith treatment. Like the country itself, they are friendly, open and joking on the surface, but troubled beneath. Steve Bungu is an ominous force. Tough and utterly ruthless, he casts an evil shadow over the whole story much like Pete Bondurant in James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy, or Eric Wu in Harlan Coben’s Just One Look. When you find out about Bungu’s past, you’ll realise why another human life means nothing to him.
Zondi himself continues to be the enigmatic and reluctant action hero, working well with the giant Afrikaner Van Staaden as well as with a tiny bushman cop called Assegaai to try and bring a solitary drop of justice to this insignificant corner of the Western Cape.
Peopled with engaging characters, and peppered with both dark humour and hard-hitting observation, Nowhere is another compelling read from Roger Smith. Racism, drugs, violence, injustice, poverty – all the key problems facing South Africa today permeate the book like the bubbles in an Aero bar. But it’s the bittersweet, visceral storytelling that separates this book from the pack. I prefer this novel to the very dark, introspective contemporary noir of the author’s recent standalones.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars