Quite apart from the fact that Cocaine Nights is by J.G. Ballard, the book design (design and marketing does work, even if all that silver foil ends up on my sweaty little fingers. I have books where you can’t see the title or the author’s name until you open the cover) and the premise of the story were enough to attract me to this novel. Charles Prentice arrives in the Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar, an exclusive enclave for the rich and retired British, hot on the heels of news he has received that his brother Frank has pleaded guilty to the murder of five people in a house fire. Charles can’t believe that his brother would be involved in such a thing, and, indeed, the police don’t believe Frank’s confession to be true. So, what is the reason for Frank’s self-destructive impulse?
That is something we learn throughout the course of the novel, as we are introduced to the seamier side of life (drugs, pornography, prostitution, burglary, violent crime and murder) in the apparently idyllic resort and the masterminds behind the whole crime spree. As the basic theory behind this novel is revealed and fleshed out, it stretches credibility, but what we do get is a very convincing picture of the kind of decadence that, if it doesn’t already exist, could be just around the corner and could be the ruination of us all as a species. Ballard has a wicked turn of phrase, a wry sense of humour and the unerring ability to observe the commonplace from a skewed, but nonetheless illuminating, perspective. He has taken imagery more typically to be found in his SF works, such as Vermilion Sands and Hello America, and transplanted it into the world as we know it today with frighteningly surreal results. Ballard’s Costa del Sol (which, deep down, I think, is the real one) is no place I’d ever like to take a holiday in.