Readable in a Martina Cole sort of way, SWEET GUM is a slice-of-urban-criminal-life soap opera adorned with gruesome details. Eugene is the central character, a drug dealer treated as a hero by the author and respected by most other characters. He lives with his mother, sister and nephew in North London, working as a driver and gopher for some typical gang lords. Hoping to be promoted from his relatively menial role of fetching and delivering the "product", Eugene makes a habit of good manners and self-restraint, hence coming to the notice of the two gang bosses, brothers George and Archie Faron, as well as their right-hand man Talus. Eugene sets up a drug deal in Nottingham which impresses Talus sufficiently to promote him to "right-hand man's right-hand man".
Eugene's sister Simone is a lap dancer at the SweetHeart club, becoming increasingly frantic as girls from the club are being killed in brutal fashion, and her illegitimate young son Nero becomes violent and uncontrollable, not to mention obsessed with the crimes, even though he's only six. A police investigation into the crimes begins, and when George's unfaithful wife vanishes, Talus and Eugene embark on a desperate search to find her before disaster strikes.
Although SWEET GUM is readable, and occasionally amusing in a macabre kind of way, I didn't like it much. There is no mystery element: it is immediately clear who is going to be responsible for the murders, and the thriller element isn't very tense – the whole Gloria and George aspect seems hard to credit. It is hard to sympathise with Eugene, Simone and their mother Gladys when Nero has been ignored and left to watch TV programmes of gruesome murders 24/7 – nobody seems to have bothered to teach the boy to read or to have spent any time with him and his mother spends any time she's not at the club with her friends out shopping. But maybe the boy's character is intended to be parodic, it is hard to tell.
I don't sympathise with Eugene as a character, as I think the reader is intended to do, when he makes a living out of drug dealing: one character in the book is portrayed as slimy for hanging around the SweetHearts club and selling drugs to the girls, but Eugene, being a dealer rather than a supplier, is admired. Eugene himself is less than convincing: when he and his friend Ralph left school, Ralph became a travel agent but Eugene rejected the straight life because he doesn't want to be poor. However, there is no appreciable difference between the lifestyles of the two men, who meet up for a drink every week when Ralph's wife will let him out.
There are some nice touches, for example Eugene's fascination with serious historical documentaries as well as with serial-killer programmes, and some digs at Islington social workers (an easy target), but much of it is just silly – when one of the detectives enters the family's house, he immediately begins to respect Eugene because the contents were not what he expected (we aren't told what they actually are) – yet Eugene is a known drug dealer, so why would a policeman respect him for having a neat house?
So, although SWEET GUM is a passable read and certainly deserves the label "amoral" provided in the numerous plaudits from reviewers reprinted in the flyleaves, it isn't really my cup of tea. The characters are cartoonish: Nero, for example, isn't so much chilling as a nonentity. The occasional gruesome Hannibal-Lecter-like details and touches of the supernatural seem to be tacked on for their own sensational sake.