Among Thieves – A Review

Mez Packer’s Among Thieves is British ska noir, a combination of the 2 Tone seen in early 80’s England and drug dealers and low grade criminals. What gives the book promise is the setting with the music and rebelliousness and an energy set against a dreary England rife with unemployment and disappointment. The characters would be tough and use enough slang you’d feel you were in Coventry. And the novel begins that way when Jez, a Jamaican, begins to narrate the book. The book quickly switches, though, to other narrators and the energy Jez gives the novel is lost and it becomes a just a novel of petty friendships and animosities.

Briefly, the plot follows four characters. Pad and Andy are friends and drug dealers. They make good money but they soon fall out and would not have much to do with each other, but Andy owes the IRA 25,000 pounds and needs Pads help. They try different schemes: passing counterfeit money in Spain; smuggling drugs into England. Nothing works correctly because Pads hates Andy too much. Jez is in the middle of every plan, always getting the raw end, but adding some edge to the story. Finally, Ahmett narrates the story of his flight from Albania, which seems unconnected, but at the very end of the novel connects all the points of the story.

What makes Among Thieves a weak novel is the unfocused plot. While a crime novel could be less plot driven, Among Thieves seeks complexity in the plot, but what occurs is not complexity but lethargy as Pads complains about Andy getting his girl or telling us how jealous he is that Andy might sleep with one of his drug couriers. Instead of tension, you have the sense of listening in on high schoolers gossiping. No, not all drug dealers have to be hardboiled toughs, but winers are tedious.

A second problem is Ahmett. Most of his narration is about his escape from Albania and has nothing to do with the central plot. While the twist at the end of the book links him to the story, the long sections of his life only serve to slow down the intrigues between Pads and Andy. In a novel of intrigues, each part must heighten the intrigue otherwise the book ceases to be intriguing .

The one bright spot in the novel is Jez who brings an energy to the narration that is often lacking when Pads narrates. It is obvious the Packer can create interesting characters and knows how to give them life. Perhaps in her next work the characters will be more consistently interesting.

While reminiscent of Train Spotting and Snatch, Among Thieves has neither the dark introspection of the former nor the well plotted story of latter; however, it does fit squarely amongst the British crime genre of the last 20 years.

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