Sunday, July 31, 2011

412. Cocaine Nights – J.G. Ballard

History: This book was first published in 1996.
Plot: Travel writer Charles Prentice arrives at Estrella de Mar, a resort town near Gibraltar populated primarily by British retirees in order to rescue his jailed brother, Frank, who has confessed to setting a fire that killed five people in the villa of the wealthy Hollinger family. Charles knows Frank didn't do it, and so does everyone else, so Frank's motivation is a mystery. Upon arriving and talking with his sibling, he has no interest in trying to escape his plea.
In a matter of days, Charles becomes immersed in the strange world of Estrella de Mar, learning more of her dark secrets, and spending less time worrying about his brother. It involves kinky goings-on in a wealthy British resort community in Gibraltar, where there's not much to do but suntan, get high and play sex games. There are theatre and film clubs, a choral society, cordon bleu classes.... But the longer he stays, the more confused Charles is by the residents' breezy lack of concern about the constant background of vandalism, rape, prostitution, and drug dealing.
Things become clearer as Charles makes the acquaintance of local tennis pro Bobby Crawford, who has some interesting hypotheses about how to maintain the quality of the inner life in the age of affluence. As another of the locals explains, "Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People ... will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.... But how do you energize people, give them some sense of community?" Bobby's succinct answer, provided to Charles in another context: "There's nothing like a violent reflex now and then to tune up the nervous system." Bobby convinces Charles to help him replicate his social experiment in an adjacent retirement community, slowly convincing him that crime and creativity really do go hand in hand.
Constantly being manipulated while he thinks he's finding the truth, Charles soon finds himself out of control and at the nexus of certain disaster, at which point he finally begins to understand just what happened to his brother.
The end reveals that another murder is planned, the psychiatrist, the “savior” of the drug addicted, troubled women. A bomb is set to explode at the party, which will accelerate the town’s growth, just as the Hollister’s fire did the same.
However, when Charles goes to find out more from Bobby, he finds him shot dead at the tennis courts. Charles is caught holding the gun as the police arrive, the premise that he too will have to confess to a crime he did not commit.
Review: Yes, there is plenty of humour in J G Ballard's caustic dig at British ex-pat life on the Costa Del Sol but despite the claims of `dazzling originality' and `exhilarating imagination' it is instead a good but fairly conventional detective novel, very much in the English vein. Charles Prentice arrives in Estrella Del Mar, an outwardly genteel community of retired British professionals, where his brother Frank has confessed to starting a horrific fire which kills the Hollinger family. Frank was the manager of Club Nautico, the nerve pulse of the community, and nobody believes his confession, not even the police. As the Spanish police are ineffectual and disinterested Charles plunges into some clumsy amateur sleuthing to try and save his brother. However, he discovers that behind the façade of respectability the town is a hotbed of decadence and crime peopled by amoral and feckless egoists.
There is a popular tradition in English writing that enjoys depicting tranquil and genteel rural communities as a veneer for all manner of nefarious and murderous activities. An apposite comparison to Cocaine Nights would be ITV's Midsummer Murders series where deranged psychotics hell-bent on revenge lurk behind twitching net curtains or in watercolour classes. In Estrella Del Mar the principal force for good or for evil - depending on your point of view - is the implausible, floppy-haired, tennis playing Bobby Crawford who doubles as a burglar, high-powered drug dealer and pornographer. Charles is fascinated by the man and his motives and gradually becomes sucked into the dark underbelly of Estrella Del Mar and nearby Residencia Costasol forgetting about his brother languishing in jail.
Cocaine Nights is a pretty fast moving book, crisply written and not too deep, but the author does investigate the link between crime and creativity, demonstrates the danger of unbridled hedonism, and cleverly satirises the brain-dead, security-obsessed gated communities that were springing up in the 1990s.
Opening Line: “Crossing frontiers is my profession.”
Closing Line: “Crawford’s mission would endure, and the festivals of the Residencia Costasol would continue to fill the sky with their petals and balloons, as the syndicates of guilt sustained their dream.”
Quotes: “Selfish men make the best lovers. They're prepared to invest in the women's pleasures so that they can collect an even bigger dividend for themselves.”
Rating: Good

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