A modern day crime thriller set in Cape Town, South Africa. Comparisons with George Pelecanos’ various efforts set in DC are almost inevitable, as Mixed Blood includes all the elements we’ve come to know and love: relatively ordinary folks, down on their luck, who make a series of very bad choices in their lives, and pay the consequences; a setting where the urban sprawl in which the action takes place is as important as any of the characters; corrupt cops and brutal criminals; grim, bloody violence; a series of apocalyptic confrontations.
Mixed Blood follows a man named Jack Burn, who was involved in a bank heist that ending with Jack and family (pregnant wife and young son) having to give up their outwardly normal lives and flee to South Africa. Oh and Jack’s marriage is dissolving, his son is kidnapped, the South African police begin to pursue him (some for the two million in cash he stole), and he runs afoul of various criminal factions. Then the story gets really interesting.
There are quite an array of minor characters who populate Mixed Blood — all fascinating in their own right — but I was initially skeptical that they would all play vital roles. I am pleased to report that they are all well-integrated into the story and help keep the novel’s pace moving rapidly. Aside from Jack, the main lynchpins of the story are the corrupt cop chasing Jack and an ex-con night watchman. Both are fun characters and excellent additions to the story.
Weaknesses of the book: first, the protagonist’s background. It’s only hastily sketched. He was an “Army officer” of some kind, who after some time in Iraq, opened his own security system company. What exactly did he do in the Army? How did that translate into a security system job? How did he develop the fake identities he and his wife use? I’ve known and worked with a heck of a lot of military officers in various specialties and not a one has the necessary skillsets. Guess we just have to suspend disbelief. In any case, the Iraq bit seems tacked on in an effort to tap into the current zeitgeist. Also, we just kind of have to accept that the protagonist has a gambling problem and perhaps a bit of a drinking problem and that’s why he made the very bad decision that led to his current situation. That’s more or less par for the course with most crime fiction, but I always crave a bit more justification for the truly bad decisions that characters make. The finale — I won’t spoil it for you here, but once you’ve read 50 pages you know how it’s going to end, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing – really had a sense of inevitability, and I guess that’s the point, but the way it happened just kind of came out of nowhere. That could have been finessed a bit. I also would have liked a bit more detail on South Africa. I know essentially nothing about what it’s like there, and while the city was portrayed interestingly, I wanted a lot more setting details. I didn’t quite feel like I knew what all the places described look like, or what daily life was like there. I’m sure if I had more familiarity with it, the details provided would have been sufficient, but for me, I wanted more.
I highly recommend this book if you like modern crime fiction. It’s fast-paced, well-written, and violent. All good things in my book. If you like thrillers and contemporary crime novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one. Heck, you might even learn a little about Cape Town, as I did.
Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review. This has not influenced my review in any way.
4 stars out of 5
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers