Thursday, 21 January 1999

Michael Dibdin: Dirty Tricks (1991)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1992
Review number: 191

I'm in two minds about Dirty Tricks. On the one hand, it is excellently written and occasionally very funny. On the other, the character of the narrator and the events he describes are so convincingly unpleasant that I found it difficult to bring myself to read more than a few pages at a time, and am distinctly dubious about whether I would want to read other books by Dibdin.

The scenario is that the book is basically a transcription of an address made to a court in South America opposing an attempt by the British to have the speaker extradited to stand trial for a double murder. The narrator begins by claiming that he is going to tell the truth throughout - but then he would, of course. He admits to a variety of other crimes, but his aim is to persuade the court that he may not have committed the murder, as that is the only crime covered by the extradition treaty.

He started out as a teacher of English in a seedy language school in Oxford, one basically set up to make as much money as possible without regarding the standard of the education passed on to its students. There he is ground down by Clive, his employer and owner of the language school, his aspirations and ideals engendered by being a student in Oxford in the hippie era gradually abandoned in the realities of life in Thatcherite Britain. Then he meets a couple from north Oxford, Dennis and Karen, and is seduced by Karen at a dinner party.

Dennis and Karen have something the narrator does not - money - and he has something they do not - culture - and so their acquaintance ripens, along with his affair with Karen. Then Dennis dies, apparently in a boating accident - or rather, say the police later, a carefully pre-meditated plot by the narrator, who marries Karen after a barely decent interval. It is not until Karen herself dies, with evidence pointing at her new lover, Clive, that the police become interested. (The interrogation carried out by Chief Inspector Moss, a parody of Morse, infuriatingly more interested in the crossword than the crime, is another funny touch.)

The whole account raises an issue, which has been of importance to several influential twentieth century writers - the question, of how trustworthy a first person narrative is. It is abundantly clear from the way that the narrator here expresses himself (and the circumstances in which the story is set) that he would have no qualms in falsifying events if it would make him look better and save himself from a return to England and prison, and the reader certainly has no way to know whether or not he has done so. Gide is the master at casting doubt on a narrative, particularly in The Counterfeiters, but his doubts are aimed at overturning the traditional omniscience of a third person narrator rather than at deliberate falsification. The way in which people colour their perception of a scene even in their own mind is of course a major concern in stream-of-consciousness narratives. Dirty Tricks is using a technique which is closely allied to that of the epistolary novel, where a variety of correspondents give their own viewpoint on events, or novels like Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, where the same events are told from different points of view, so different in the first case that it takes the reader some time to realise that they are the same events. These comparisons to other literary experiments in narrative give an idea of the quality of Dibdin's writing; nevertheless, the narrator's character is so repulsive as to be distinctly off-putting.

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