Book Review

Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Ballard again explores dark side of psyche

Cocaine Nights
Cocaine Nights
By J.G. Ballard

Counterpoint: 1998

Buy it now at

This review first appeared in the American Reporter in 1998.

J.G. Ballard's latest is purportedly a mystery, a murder whodunit set in Spain's Costa del Sol. A bit of departure in that Ballard – best known for his autobiographical "Empire of the Sun," which detailed his WWII childhood in Japanese concentration camps in China – cut his teeth in the '60s on avant-garde science fiction and dark fantasy.

In "Cocaine Nights," the narrator's younger brother, Frank, is in a Spanish jail, awaiting sentencing for a triple murder – murders he has confessed to even though no one, not even the police, believe he committed.

It doesn't take very long before it becomes clear, though, that like every story Ballard has written (excepting only "Empire"), "Cocaine Nights" isn't really about murder so much as the limits of willpower in the face of a corrupting world.

Once Charles, our narrator, arrives at the resort his brother managed, he begins to get caught up in the dark undertide of the expatriate British community. Charles immerses himself in the local scene – with its illicit sex and drugs – in order to find out who his brother is covering up for.

But by the time he has learned enough to clear his brother, he himself is so enmeshed in not only the crime but the, well, SIN of the place, that his ability to save his brother has become deeply compromised.

This isn't really the kind of work that will appeal to traditional mystery fans. Charles Prentice is no Kinsey Milhone or Joe Leaphorn – the man is positively thick, making Colombo's outer persona seem more like Hercule Poirot by comparison. A real everyman, Prentice stumbles over the evidence, avoiding what he doesn't want to see, confronting the truth only when it has long become unavoidable.

If "Cocaine Nights" doesn't offer much in the way of Agatha Christie suspense, it is pure Ballard. All of his works ultimately share the same landscape, that of the psyche, and this work is right in the heart of that territory. More than the guilt or innocence of Frank Prentice, "Cocaine Nights" is about the willingness of Charles – and, by extension, all of us – to be corrupted by forces we claim to oppose.