Layer Cake, a metaphor for the many murky layers of the criminal world, is set in modern day London and features smooth-talking drug dealer X who has a plan to quietly bankroll enough cash to retire before his thirtieth birthday. Operating under the polished veneer of a legitimate businessman, his mantra is to keep a low profile and run a tight operation until it’s time to get out .
When kingpin Jimmy Price asks him to find the wayward daughter of a wealthy socialite who’s been running around with a cokehead, he accepts the job with the promise that after this he can leave the criminal world behind with Jimmy’s blessing. Oh, and he needs to find a buyer for two million ecstasy pills acquired by a crew of lowly, loud-mouth gangsters, the Yahoos. Simple enough, until an assassin named Klaus arrives to scratch him off his list, revealing this job is much more than it seems at first…
In much the same way as Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting defined a generation in Scottish fiction, I believe that Layer Cake did much the same for London based crime fiction. The influence of this book on some of the best known London noir crime writers is inescapable, and J. J. Connolly really set the bar high for those following in his wake. It’s been a real pleasure dusting off my old copy of this and entering this violent and visceral world once again…
The characterisation of this disparate band of gangsters and wannabe gangsters is superlative from beginning to end, and they are, without exception so vividly drawn that the reader can picture each of them in all their sullied glory. Connolly plays close attention to how these men hold themselves, their physicality and manner of dress, and in this world where the appearance of confidence and strength is the key to success, it becomes easy to identify the weak and powerless who will definitely not make it to the end of the book. Despite having the moral code of a band of backstreet alley cats, I love that these men have a taste for the finer things in life be it smart threads, flashy motors and the finest food and drink. Much of their business is conducted in the rarefied air of high end restaurants and exclusive clubs, but equally in dodgy cafes and unsavoury boozers.
Our unnamed narrator, has all the street-smarts and at a relatively tender age is assured in his mission to retire at 30, unscathed and unpunished for his more nefarious drug dealings behind his appearance of respectability. Throughout the book, he not only cleverly negotiates the world of the gangster kingpins, but is more often than not, manipulated at the whim of others and things begin to get very dodgy indeed for him. I like the way that Connolly uses him as a mirror to the unsavoury cohorts encircle him, and through his perception of them, and their outbursts of violence, we get an even more vivid picture of these sometimes desperate and always dangerous men. In this world where money is all and double dealing the way to get on, there is little in the way of honesty, but there are flashes of loyalty and friendship that transcend this tough, dog-eat-dog and immoral world. The sudden and visceral outbursts of violence are as natural to these men as breathing, and as they alternately turn on each other, or band together to defeat outside forces, The psychological aspects of their personalities really fleshes them out for the reader, and poses puzzles all of its own as their behaviours change and by extension our perception of them.
The raw earthiness of Connolly’s prose is relentless, so for those of a sensitive disposition and an aversion to profanity, you would probably best avoid this. Even for a hardened reader the sheer weight of colloquialisms, street slang and swearing, added to the pace and rat-a-tat dialogue and narrative can be a little overwhelming at times, but the breath-taking scope of Connolly’s vocabulary and prose is a marvel. The prose is harshly rhythmical with a beat and musicality all of its own and although I have read the book a few times over the years, and I never tire of the snappy prose and the raw rhythm of the language that the book marches along to.
Admittedly, some of the book seems a little dated now in terms of how time has moved on and how technology plays a much bigger part in the world of cross border drug dealing, but of its time, Connolly’s Layer Cake remains a classic of London crime and a lucid and compelling tale of the drug underworld. There is a raw sophistication instead of a sleek one, as the book does untangle a little in terms of tight narrative, and goes off in tangents at some points, but it’s all part of its charm. This is probably why I’ve always loved it, and will always return to it when the opportunity arises, Highly recommended.
Check out the exclusive signed editions available from NO ALIBIS BOOKS
(With thanks to Duckworth for the PDF ARC, although I read my twenty year old beaten up, well loved copy!)
Missed a post? Catch up at these excellent sites: