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J G Ballard: Cocaine Nights

On the surface, this book, at least at the start, seems a fairly conventional mystery. The Spanish resort of Estrella de Mar (which should surely be Estrella del Mar) is a retirement community for rich British expats, who do the things that these people do – tennis, boating, parties, putting on plays. Of course, as this is Ballard, things are going to start going wrong and they do. It starts with petty crime and then escalates into arson, when a wealthy industrialist’s house goes up in flames, claiming five lives. Frank Prentice is accused of (and admits to) the crime. His brother, Charles, comes out to the linguistically challenged resort to help find the real culprit.

Of course, in the hands of a more conventional writer this could have been an interesting whodunit coupled with a satire on the lives of the idle rich, their attitudes towards the”natives” and their casual sex-and-drinking. Ballard has all this, of course, but he is also interested in exploring the future and the future for him is how to keep these early retirees amused. The answer is not tennis, sex and whisky and soda but violence. As tennis pro Bobby Crawford nicely puts it There’s nothing like a violent reflex now and then to tune up the nervous system. Of course, Ballard has been down this road before, not least with Crash. Violence is not necessarily something that we should fear but, rather, it energizes us, make us alive, even as it kills us. Crawford may end up lying among his bloodied balls but his death will energize and bring together a community.

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