Magazine article The Spectator

Crime or Banishment

Magazine article The Spectator

Crime or Banishment

Article excerpt

This is the first book I have read by this prolific and popular author. I am therefore unable to say if this is 'vintage' Ballard or a dazzling new departure for him, or indeed just how it fits into the massive and star-spangled Ballard oeuvre. I can only say that it is a wonderfully readable and selfconfident book, soothingly written yet brimming over with frightening ideas.

Cocaine Nights is set on the Costa del Sol and to some extent takes the lid off the `retirement complexes' wedged into that overheated strip of land. A well-known English travel writer arrives in the area to try and help his younger brother, who has mysteriously claimed responsibility for the murder of several people in a housefire, though nobody, not even the police, believe him to be guilty of this horrific crime. Action is divided between two different resorts. Estrella de Mar, where the murders have taken place, is a suspiciously lively place, full of alert and over-active inhabitants engaged in a tireless sporting and cultural programme, and apparently unconcerned about the criminal activities going on around them: nobody, quite literally, gives a hoot when a rape takes place in a car-park. Further down the same coast is a much sleepier, crime-free housing development called the Residencia Costasol, which the author describes as 'a world beyond boredom', 'a special kind of willed limbo' and as `one huge liver perfused with vodka and tonic'. Yes, but not for long.

To start with, our hero's investigations into the murders get him nowhere. He is told he is asking `an awful lot of questions' and advised to return to London. His car is set on fire and there is an apparent attempt on his life - later described by his attacker as 'a gesture of affection'. Even his brother in gaol refuses to see him.

The plot thickens, however, and the narrator's increasing complicity in the mystery he is trying to unravel is eerily worked out and eventually, in the book's very last paragraph, reaches an appallingly perverted conclusion which will leave readers gasping.

But this is racing ahead. Cocaine Nights offers all the twists and turns of an oldfashioned whodunit - didn't Agatha Christie set some of her stories in similarly sun-drenched communities? - but can also be described as a psychological thriller or even as a work of-weird social history. Some of the writing might have come out of one of Vanity Fair's crime pieces and there are also echoes of John Berendt's true-life murder mystery, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, set in upper-class Savannah, Georgia. …

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