Written by Roger Smith

Review written by Robin Jarossi

Serpent's Tail
RRP: £12.99
Released: 14th February 2013
Trade Pbk

This latest novel from South African author Roger Smith makes most crime novels look sedate. Capture is hard stuff – bleak, remorseless, violent and horribly tense.

Around 100 pages in you might ask yourself why you should carry on reading about such damaged people trapped in cycles of violence and degradation. Well, quite simply, the writing absolutely crackles and the characters are unforgettable. But, boy, does the author put them through the wringer.

Nick, the inventor of some lucrative motion-capture software, is in a desperately unhappy marriage to Caroline. They live in a swish home by the sea in Llandudno, Cape Town. At a kid’s birthday party their little daughter drowns, both parents being partly culpable as Caroline was having a sexual tryst with her lover in the kitchen and Nick was enjoying a spliff with an Aussie mate.

Unknown to them, watching the tragedy unfold was the book’s most compelling and poisonous character, a private security cop called Vernon Saul. He ignores his initial instinct to warn the partygoers about the girl’s plight, deciding instead to wait to see how things play out. When the girl has drowned he rushes down to pretend to attempt to resuscitate her.

This is Vernon’s MO, to appear to help while all the time manipulating and ensnaring the vulnerable. He’s also trapped former prostitute Dawn into his orbit, finding her a job as a stripper so she can live in squalor but reasonably safely with her daughter – but always on Vernon’s terms. Dawn and Vernon are from the crime-ravaged Cape Flats, a world away from Llandudno.

Everyone in this story is compromised and struggling against their own nightmarish reality – as his marriage implodes into grief and hatred, Nick tries to defy his predicament by breathing life into his cherished daughter through some motion-capture computer magic. Dawn tries to have some tiny control over her miserable existence by refusing to sleep with the scumbags at the strip club. Vernon maintains a semblance of control over his world by killing anyone who gets in his way or threatens his projects. This is a pattern that began when he took a hammer to the father who was sexually abusing him in childhood. Unbidden, he kills for Nick and Dawn to put them in his debt.

It’s a ferocious, chilling tale – but just when it seems to be a non-stop catalogue of misery and madness, there is a slender chance of redemption for a couple of the characters. And that glimmer of hope will have readers rushing to the end to see if any of Smith’s guilt-laden strugglers can defy the appalling Vernon Saul to find some redemption for themselves.

A first-class thriller.


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