The book world doesn’t need another thriller laced with foul language, blood, and graphic violence, hoping to garner praise as “gritty” or “visceral.” Good thrillers are grounded in reality. And good, gritty noir writing subtly exposes the darkness of the human soul. Wake Up Dead is neither realistic nor subtle.
Billy Afrika, a mercenary capable of the inhuman feat of knocking out 400 push-ups every morning, hits his hometown streets of Cape Town, South Africa, in search of Joe Palmer, a gun-runner who owes him money. Roxy, Joe’s wife, ruins any chance for Billy to collect when she shoots Joe between the eyes, using a gun left behind when she and Joe are car-jacked. The car-jackers, Disco and Godwynn, are none too happy to be pinned with a murder they didn’t commit, and they set out to exact revenge on Roxy, or at least earn a little more money from her. The pimple ridden detective investigating the murder, Ernie Maggott, suspects Roxy is the killer. Billy, still hoping to cash in, signs on as Roxy’s one-man, personal security detail, trying to protect her from all of them.
The characters in Wake Up Dead feel like they were pulled from a 1980s B-movie that loops late night on free cable. Even the character names scream midnight, drive-in movie popcorn. The dizzying plot turns will make your head spin, until the last few pages, where the finale threatens downright whiplash.
The prose of the book matches the fantasy and cheese of the plot and characters. Women are found “battling jeans that sliced into her flesh like a delicatessen blade into cold cuts.” Another clothing war was alliteratively described this way: “The bottle blonde battled brutally tight jeans.” Comparing people’s skin or body parts also seems to be a favorite, so that one character has “brown skin tinged gray like meat gone rancid” and another has “skin the color of strong tea left to stand.” At some point, Roxy notices two men staring at her with eyes “like oily kalamata olives.”
To be fair, I know how hard it is to tell a story, how difficult it is to put words to paper. I frequently hear stories about struggling writers, endlessly sending manuscripts to editors and agents only to be met with an equally endless string of rejection notices. But I can’t recommend Wake Up Dead to anyone. I wouldn’t have made it past the first ten pages if I hadn’t promised to write a review.
Mac M., aka blackdogbooks on Librarything, lives in the American Southwest and works in law enforcement.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Picador. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.