New Urban British Fiction in the TLS

The TLS has a good write up of some interesting first fiction from Britain. It sounds interesting, perhaps because the themes and settings resonate with an image on Britain I have from the 80s.

Coventry, the setting for Mez Packer’s witty, fast-paced thriller, Among Thieves, was settled by Jamaicans in great numbers in the 1950s and 60s thanks to the opportunities for work. Jamaican ska music, a speedy jazz-tinged shuffle-beat, took off in Coventry, as it did elsewhere in urban Britain, and before long its driving, dance-floor rhythms attracted groups of skinheads and scooter- riding Mods. (Sometimes, if suitably dressed in Crombies and sharp Trevira suits, Jamaicans were even allowed to join the skinhead gangs.) Ska was, triumphantly, a Commonwealth music, which brought together the poor whites and poor blacks of Britain. In the late 1970s it was revived in Coventry by local “2 Tone” bands, such as The Specials and The Selecter, who sought to emulate the Jamaican ska legends Derrick Morgan and Desmond Dekker.

Packer’s novel unfolds in the Midlands city in 1984, at the fag-end of the 2 Tone period when, as the author tells us, it was “cool to have black mates”. Jez, a ska-loving “Cov lad” and a wheeler-dealer, is sent to Spain with a Jamaican rude boy associate, Bas, to change a suitcaseful of fake dollars; the counterfeit money came from a disastrous drug deal made with IRA gangsters back in Coventry. As it charts ever more dodgy Spanish business, the novel recalls Robin Cook’s cult crime memoir The Crust on its Uppers (1962), about a similarly doomed attempt to smuggle counterfeit notes abroad. Packer, like Cook, crams her novel with comic characters such as the murderous Albanian Mehment Lucca, whose Balkan sense of justice leads him to commit an eye-for-an-eye revenge killing. The other bad hats include Pads and Andy, middle-class Coventry students who deal in drugs and credit card scams when not studying Politics and Sociology. The novel is spiked with Jamaican vernacular (“raasclot”, “bwoy”) and a rich criminal slang. Packer lovingly evokes Coventry in the 1980s, a city on the point of disintegration, it seems, its theatres and social clubs closed down – as conjured by the Specials in their hit single “Ghost Town”. Packer, who has a gift for quirky conversational description and social satire, is a promising new novelist.

Ghost Town by the Specials