Donald takes pulp-fiction, smashes it into crime-noir, and mixes in a little suspense for good measure. The result… one hell of a ride through seedy nightclubs, high-ranking estates and drug deals gone AWOL.
As far as debut novels go, this is ballsy as hell. To take a well-known genre, flip it on its head by incorporating drama and family aspects, and not alienate the reader is a significant accomplishment.
Given the title, you can probably guess that the book continually goes back to an old tree that sits in Scott’s uncles’ garden. From one angle, it looks almost human, and from another, like an elephant.
Whilst being interviewed regarding his second book, Zombie Room, Donald admitted to previously spending time in prison after being caught up in various crimes. He says, regarding his sick wife ‘Renee became ill shortly after we were married, the treatment she needed was expensive. An opportunity came up for me to run a cannabis farm – the extra cash would make the difference to Renee’s care, so I accepted. Renee was optimistic about her treatment, but sadly she didn’t make it. Not long afterwards, I was arrested and sent to prison.‘
It was while in prison that he discovered that writing was an outlet, and became determined to write a book once his time was served.
By incorporating his own story, and those he heard of in prison, The Elephant Tree was born.
Playing Outside the Lines
Our protagonist is Scott; a 24-year-old living in the shadow of his older brother, struggling to get by selling low-grade drugs. After being given a chance to expand his enterprise, the deal goes wonky for his partner who ends up dead.
It’s up to Scott, and his new girlfriend Angela to piece the puzzle together, and find out who’s behind this new drug business and what do they want with them.
Ultimately, I enjoy how the story plays out.
As Scott gets deeper in the new drug enterprise, their actions become incredibly violent. It gets to a point where they aren’t afraid to murder right in front of his eyes.
This also serves to increase the tension surrounding Scott. The more he wants to pull away and get out of the deal, the more they will come after him.
Finally making a run for it, Angela and he can no longer trust anyone they meet, choosing to settle in with one of his brother’s old friends. But even then, you never know whose side these new characters are on.
The suspense is gripping, and I found the mid to final stages of the book flying by.
Language is an integral part of any novel, especially in setting the tone. Donald uses a gritty noir tone to build the city up, giving it a seedy appeal. Throw in the petty drug-dealers and infamous whores, and you have one grotty little city.
I don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs like Me)
When I first started reading, I quickly got the feeling that this wasn’t going to be for me. However, much like Heartsick, which I equally felt cynical about upon beginning, it quickly expanded beyond the usual drug-dealer tropes.
I enjoyed that the book didn’t try to hammer home the over-played message of ‘This is your brain on drugs‘, but instead, simply told a story involving drug use.
In contrast, I did find there were times when the characters were maybe a little immune from drugs. Take Angela’s father, for example.
He spends all day sitting in his apartment smoking weed, and then most evenings selling the stuff. Yet, incredibly, he has no apparent ailments from doing so. For a man in his forties, who’s been on the scene for years, this is an incredible feat.
Some parts felt disjointed and slightly confusing. The characters, at least, to begin with, all felt incredibly similar, mid-twenties, sells drugs, might have a family. However, once the plot started to settle, so too did the characters.
It’s worth noting that all the blurbs surrounding this book set it up to be a crime thriller. Yet, the detective in question dominates the first chapter and then is rarely seen again until the end.
This did throw me off and left me feeling disorientated going through the opening passages. Waiting for the character to pop back up became tedious at times.
Other than this, the dialogue was reasonably stable, and the main characters felt grounded in their environment, giving everything a more serious tone.
Whilst The Elephant Tree isn’t a dense book with plenty of philosophical musings, it does offer a welcomed break from the over-saturated crime genre.
It flows well, it’s schlocky and most importantly – fun. If you want something easy-to-read in between more challenging novels, then look no further than this crime-noir throwback.
If you enjoy the slightly over-the-top style of Chelsea Cain, then The Elephant Tree is a must-read.