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Book Review: Cocaine Nights by J G Ballard

Anyone who has ever stepped foot in one of those whitewashed ex-pat communities on Spain's Costa del Sol will feel instantly at home with Ballard's Cocaine Nights. It all feels rather familiar, the golf-resorts, bungalows, pools and endless sunny days filled with a certain amount of ennui and even madness . . .

J G certainly has a knack for picking out salient details. His decision to set this thriller in the sunny climes of Estrella Del Mar allows the author to create yet another community behind whose security gates residents yearn for something - fulfilment presumably.

Into this barren land arrives Charles Prentice - a somewhat nondescript freelance photographer turned amateur sleuth intent on unravelling a perplexing mystery: why has younger brother Frank pleaded guilty to an arson attack which left five people dead when nobody, not even the police, believes he committed the crime?

Mystery abounds. And it has to be said, for the first two-thirds of this novel, the mystery of Frank's confession hooks the reader. As a result of his investigations Charles is drawn into a very seedy side of ex-pat life, a side that involves pornography, drugs and murder.

Colourful describes this particular ex-pat community. Doctors, psychiatrists, tennis coaches, all of them seemingly infused with a special form of malaise, one that compels them to act in very peculiar ways.

The themes of alienation and boredom are classic Ballard. His portrait of Estrella del Mar, listless, apathetic, indolent and degenerate rings true. As Charles attempts to piece together the mystery he finds himself, like his fellow residents, lulled into torpor by the milieu and the hot, endless Spanish afternoons.

And then it goes a little awry. The introduction of charismatic tennis coach Bobby Crawford sends this erstwhile detective thriller into a completely different and wholly unexpected direction. Who is responsible for the arson attack? As he falls deeper under Crawford's influence, the quest to solve the mystery and exonerate younger brother dissolves in the heatwave.

Crawford is on a mission: to jolt the residents of these soulless residencias into action. The handsome tennis coach has a theory: in order to stir up civic society to make it cohesive, residents need to be shocked out of their indifference. A modern day Robin Hood-cum-Freud, the tennis coach has embarked on a crime spree - the objective of which is to do just that: rouse residents into joint action and thereafter community spirit and bonhomie.

Seduced by this bizarre utopian vision, Charles joins Crawford's scheme, riding shotgun on the tennis coach's nocturnal crime sprees. Bizarre is not the word. Soon, poor old Frank, languishing in a Spanish jail, is almost entirely forgotten as Charles throws himself into the role of Robin to Crawford's Batman.

Fine if you buy it, if you don't . . .

Now I'm no sociologist, but this plot strains credibility: tennis coach turned messiah? One man mission to breathe life into the Spanish Costas by supplying drugs, sex, alcohol and bespoke porn films? At this point, the novel loses the plot - literally. It's goodbye crime thriller and hello post-modern allegory - a jump too far in my estimation.

Anyway, Charles becomes embroiled in this odd plotline and the novel plods on to a rather elongated (and painful) denouement in which the 'mystery' of the arson attack is explained over several pages - at least I think it is. It's all to do with 'the community' and some sort of sacrifice. So whodunit? I still don’t know and I'm not sure if I care . . .

Why Ballard decided to take the novel in this direction is perhaps the biggest mystery of all in 'Cocaine Nights.' Judged by the title I had assumed this would be a gripping voyage into the seedier side of ex-pat life, and was looking forward to a cocaine-fuelled ride into all things taboo. It almost happens, but not quite.