I’ve read Tony Thompson’s books on crime before. They are always marketed in a low-brow tabloidy way but are brilliantly written. They are gripping and informative: basically, my definition of the perfect nonfiction book. One technique he always uses is to bring his personal experience into the writing. In Gangs – an earlier book – he describes getting high on crack cocaine and heroin, and in this book he recounts almost getting beaten up by bouncers whilst pursuing an interview, and selling drugs in Camden. This could be annoying, but done with restraint and a bit of self-deprecation – as Thompson does – it adds a real thrill to the ride. (The most amusing story is getting arrested by police for firearms he’d bought over the internet. He arrives home one morning to find a police squad searching his flat:
“The living room is a sea of chaos. There are papers and clothes and books and boxes everywhere. It is as though a tornado has torn through the place, destroying everything in its path. It is exactly as I’d left it the night before.“)
There are many interesting parts to the book (the chapter on how important mobile phones are in prison was particularly eye-opening – it includes a story of one con who had to go to hospital to have a bit of his rectum removed, after hiding a phone up his bum during a routine room inspection) but one little note stood out because it confirmed something in another book I’d read recently.
In Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, in one chapter titled ‘Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?’ the authors look at how many drug dealers make little money. Drug dealing – like music or film – is a glamour industry: a few people at the top earns piles of money supported by scores of ambitious younguns who’ll do anything to make it big. In the book Thompson cites a Joseph Rowntree study that gives the example of two runners, employed by a relative who had to sell 200 bags of heroin and 200 rocks of crack a week between them to earn £150 a week. As Thompson notes:
“considering how often teenagers protest they have no choice but to work the streets because ‘it’s better than flipping burgers in McDonald’s’, a sixteen-year-old working a forty-hour week at the fast-food chain would actually take home £163 after deduction of tax and national insurance”