Written by Saira Viola – The inter-connected worlds of media, celebrity and good old-fashioned London gangsters are all ripe for humorous treatment in a crime novel, which is exactly what new author Saira Viola does with Jukebox. A freewheeling, darkly humorous exposé of the city’s seedy underbelly, it’s a sharp-eyed satire that marches to its own beat.
Don’t expect a formulaic plot with familiar crime characters and an obviously satisfying conclusion. Just savour the rhythm of this poet’s prose as she takes you on a dizzying trawl through the mean streets amid legal chicanery, copious amounts of drugs and casual sexual encounters.
At the heart of the story is a Faustian pact between trainee solicitor Nick Stringer and crime boss Mel Greenberg, who’s described as the John Gotti of London. The deal is complicated by a family connection, which perhaps puts Nick off his guard. But while the financial hook-up with his law firm gives Nick a chance of pursuing his music industry dreams, he’s become lured into a more sinister family – the mob.
Mel is a cunning monster who charms with his crude bonhomie and Yiddish endearments, while quickly making it clear to Nick who’s in charge. The legal front is a way of protecting his interests, ranging from a Ponzi scheme, gambling, ID theft, prostitution and bootleg vodka. Yet behind his predictable machismo, he has his demons. His Jewish faith is challenged by his feelings for a transsexual glamour model called Mimi Deepridge. He’s also self-conscious enough about his belly to contain it in a man girdle.
Nick realises he’s acquiring, and perhaps enjoying, the bravado that his crime connection brings even though he’s having to fend off Mel’s dodgy schemes. He ended up in law by mistake and loathes its “sneaking artifice”, so consorting with gangsters gives him the same sort of buzz as scouting for music acts and singing in a band alongside his more hippyish mate Matt. When they throw a party, Nick hooks up with Avery, an ambitious journalist who doesn’t tell him she wants to expose the criminal activities of Mel. Journalists are useful characters to go poking around in crime novels, and Avery stirs things up while Nick is away attending to an awkward arrest as part of a drug trafficking operation on the French-Spanish border. There are several more memorable characters including comical criminals and a modern-day shaman.
Whether it’s the starchy world of the law or the fading buzz of celebrity-obsessed newspapers struggling to stay afloat, Viola captures the daily routines of her characters alongside the hedonistic lifestyle after hours. Gangsters may seem an unpromising subject 15 years after Guy Ritchie and crime writer Jake Arnott latched on to them; more recently we’ve had villains in contemporary novels by Erin Kelly and Mick Scully. But Viola has the self-awareness (Layer Cake gets a mention) and satirical touch to pull it off. Jukebox confronts you with our unhealthy obsession with career criminals, as well as the media’s tendency to glamorise their lives. It’s a dubious phenomenon that reaches its nadir in this novel with a counterculture artist trading off his father’s villainous past to secure a berth as a second-rate celebrity.
The haphazard plot might not pass muster for some readers. The characters’ ambitions collide as various criminal mishaps occur. But it’s always entertaining as the miscreants express themselves with aggressive tirades and colourful argot. This dialogue quickly draws you in to the novel, which has a slightly Gonzo flavour and heady rhythm that updates the hardboiled style of authors such as Chester Himes. Viola also relishes creating metaphorical neologisms: one woman is described as “civil service hot”, while another character feels a moment of “Miles Davis melancholy”.
You suspect a mainstream publisher would have made Viola tidy up her novel and sharpen up its plot. But that would have made it merely another mainstream novel. Jukebox is a dirty, delinquent satire with plenty of scabrous humour, but it also holds up a mirror to a society obsessed with the wrong kind of celebrity. If you can get into its rhythm, Jukebox is a compelling crime caper.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars