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Mad Dog Killers: The Story of a Congo Mercenary, Ivan Smith (Helion / 30° South Publishers 2012)

War is one of the most intense experiences a human being can undergo. Films or computer-games might give you a good idea of what war looks like and sounds like, but they can’t yet tell you what it feels like. This book can. Ivan Smith is a natural story-teller but not a polished writer. That adds to the authenticity of Mad Dog Killers. He’s an ordinary man who saw, did, heard, felt, and smelt some extraordinary things.

But that suggests he’s not so ordinary after all. He had to be tough to fight and survive in the Congo as a mercenary in the Armée Nationale Congolaise during the 1960s. But he isn’t a psychopath, because he’s still haunted by some of the deaths he dealt out or witnessed. Many of his fellow mercenaries were definitely psychopaths. On his own account, he owes his life to one of the worst, a “nerveless and totally ruthless man” called Boeta, who befriended him and watched his back in the barracks and on the battle-field. Boeta comes alive on the page thanks to death. He enjoyed dishing it out and was never happier than in the middle of a fire-fight. He could make night-clubbing go with a bang too:

Boeta eventually signed up for four contracts in a row and on the second one, some months after I had returned to a normal life, he visited a nightclub in Leopoldville [now Kinshasa]. The jazz band refused to play the music he requested. It was in the early hours of the morning so he would have been very drunk. He opened fire on the offending band with an FN [machine-gun]* on automatic fire and killed them all, as well as a couple of other patrons. The one band member turned out to be a relative of a high-ranking government official so Boeta was arrested, tried and sentenced to death. A week later he was back with his Commando; the funds he had accumulated from looting had allowed him to buy his way out of it all. (ch. 4, pg. 43 – *FN = Fabrique Nationale, the Belgian arms-manufacturer)

Later in the book, Boeta makes a visit to a “tatty café” go with a bang too: “The pistol came up and stuck in the waiter’s ear. The shot was muffled and blood and brains sprayed from the exit wound and splashed the wall and roof.” (ch. 11, pg. 155) What had the black waiter done? He’d jokingly claimed to be a “Simba”, or one of the rebels against whom the mercenaries were fighting. So Boeta casually murdered him. Earlier, he and another mercenary had casually murdered a black stranger because no-one could understand what he was saying after he was left with them by some white soldiers from an unknown unit:

“Hey, Harry, you speak Frog, what is he saying?” I asked.

“No, man, it is not French. The bugger is giving me a headache. Wish he would shut up.”

“Good idea. Watch this. Stupid Simba, you should have been quiet.” Boeta got up and beckoned the loudly complaining man over. “Stand over there, you dumb fucker.” He pointed to the edge of the bridge and waved the man to stand there.

Pete, one of the commandos who happened to have been at school with me, but was two years my junior, got up and went to join Boeta.

“Man, I can’t believe that nutcase. Surely the bloke can see it coming?” Harry puffed blue clouds of smoke.

“Don’t think they will do it, will they?” was my anxious complaint.

Boeta and Pete suddenly put up their rifles and fired from the hip, on automatic, long bursts. The complaining man was smashed forward and then lifted by them and thrown over the edge into the swift water below.

“Is that not better?” Boeta called. “No more fucking whining.” (ch. 10, pg. 137)

As Smith notes wryly at the beginning: Boeta became a mercenary because “in the Congo there was no law.” Did the two of them become friends because there was some echo of Boeta’s psychopathy in Smith? I’d assume so, although Boeta nicknamed Smith “Smiler” because of “my sometimes fixed smile” when frightened (pg. 44).

Smith was frightened a lot at the beginning and you can understand why. His childhood and education in South Africa had taught him to shoot and his work in a copper-mine had taught him to face violent death. Or so he thought: “This memoire is … a brief record of a few months in the life of a cocky young man who thought he was afraid of nothing, but who soon learned all about fear.” (Introduction, pg. 6) If the Simba had been better shots or less superstitious, he might not have got out alive. But they were bad shots and reckless fighters, because they often believed that the spells of “medicine-men” had rendered them invulnerable to bullets. Big mistake. In The Godfather (1969), men “sleep with the fishes”. In Mad Dog Killers, they lie with the butterflies:

At the scene of the first contact with the medicine man and company, a fluttering vibration filled the air over the bodies, which were oozing dark blood from multiple gunshot wounds. Busy clouds of brilliant butterflies were whirling over the scene and dense concentrations of the insects sat sipping the oozing blood. The salts in the blood attracted them and the green flies. The butterflies always appeared in a very short time after blood was spilt in the tropical forest. The still moist air quickly took up and conveyed the smell of fresh blood. That cloying scent along with the sharper reek of cordite was filling my lungs as I watched the fluttering insects; they took me back to childhood, to the happy hunting of the earlier days. Then it was back to here and now. (ch. 5, pg. 55)

That’s a surreal description worthy of J.G. Ballard. Africa is a cruel and beautiful place, and the Congo is the dark heart of Africa. The mercenaries often behaved badly in the Congo, but the Simba and the black soldiers in the official Congolese army were usually far worse. Both the Simba and the Congolese army routinely “liberated” towns and villages by murdering the men and raping the women. As Smith says, he spent only “a few months” fighting there, but they’ve stayed with him for the rest of his life. Regrets? He has many. Killing in the hot blood of a fire-fight was one thing, but killing in cold blood was another. Sometimes he’s not sure why he remembers some deaths and not others: “Whatever it was that bothered me about that line of running men still haunts me more than fifty years on. Yet they were just a few of the many I killed.” (ch. 8, pg. 99) Unlike Smith, Boeta enjoyed killing anyone anywhere anytime. That’s why he stayed in. Smith got out.

At least, his body got out, but his mind has often returned. Decades later, he written this book about it, trying to exorcise his demons. The old black-and-white photos add to the sense of another place and another time, but the Congo is still at war and horrors are still taking place there. First come the bullets, then the butterflies.

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Void Moon by Michael ConnellyVoid Moon, Michael Connelly (2000)

This novel has two of Connelly’s greatest virtues: clever plotting and compulsive readability. But it’s marred by perhaps his biggest vice: his failure to remember that more is often less. Like The Black Echo (1992), it grabs you at the start with the small story of a failed criminal. The Black Echo has a dead Vietnam vet called William Meadows; Void Moon has a living parolee called Cassie Black. She’s just done years in jail for burglary and is trying to start her life again as a saleswoman at a luxury car-dealer in Los Angeles.

Why was she caught? What happened to her male accomplice? Connelly cleverly leaves things unexplained and draws you in. Cassie is a sympathetic character and you start worrying as you realize that she’s planning to go back to burglary. She’s risking a quick return to jail, because Thelma Kibble, her probation officer, is an “obese black female” and therefore very good at her job. She’s becoming suspicious of Cassie, who likes her all the same. Kibble “wasn’t easy but she was fair.” Connelly’s political correctness can’t really be called a vice, because it’s so common nowadays and isn’t in fact very annoying in this book.

There are even two good white men to offset all the evil white men. And the chief villain is one of Connelly’s best. He’s a psychopathic magician called Jack Karch. That’s magic as in card-tricks and rabbits-from-hats: Karch’s father once performed in Las Vegas on the same bill as Frank Sinatra. Like money and greed, legerdemain and misdirection are important parts of the plot. Las Vegas is where Cassie was caught, trying to rob a high-roller at a casino, and where she returns for another attempt at another high-roller. That’s why Karch, who’s working as a casino detective, gets on her trail and that’s when the book begins to lose its realism. There are too many dead bodies in the second half and too much of the action might have come from a James Bond movie. Like The Black Echo, the plot starts small, believable and compelling. Like The Black Echo again, it becomes big, unbelievable and no longer compelling.

But the plot is undeniably clever, with plenty of twists and surprises, and Connelly skilfully uses the characters and setting to explore themes like loyalty, deception and ego. Another part of his literary skill is apparent only when you read more of his books. His chief character is the LAPD murder-detective Harry Bosch and although Bosch doesn’t appear in Void Moon, it’s set in the same world. All his characters are linked in some way and Cassie turns up in a Bosch book. She’s a minor character there, a major one here.

That’s like life and so was the opening of Void Moon. When the bodies start piling up, the credibility is gone. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Thelma Kibble, the obese and highly competent probation officer, had been one of Karch’s long list of murderees. She isn’t, but she has more than a waddle-on part in the book and I’m not sure that Connelly was entirely sincere in making her such a stereotype of Black female virtue. If Void Moon had ended as it began, mindful that less is more, it would have been a much better book. But it’s still good and if you like hard-boiled crime fiction, Michael Connelly is definitely someone to try.

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