I’d also be less than honest if I didn’t own up to the fact that I rely on other bloggers who are far better at discovering these dark characters than I am to alert me to their existence. Dirty Tricks came to my attention through reviews from Kimbofo at Reading Matters and Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations (and a comment on this blog from Max of Pechorin’s Journal) — their comparisons with the Sutton novel were enough convince me that Dirty Tricks would be an ideal escapist standby for when I wanted a totally unreliable, selfish scoundrel to hold my attention. I was not disappointed.
The conceit of the novel is that it is a self-authored document by the narrator, submitted to a court in an unidentified, corrupt nation apparently in South America where he is facing extradition back to the United Kingdom in connection with a couple of murders and assorted other crimes he is alleged to have committed. Even before the novel opens, Dibdin offers an epigraph from Paul Theroux’s My Secret History that encapsulates what is to come:
Comedy is the public version of a private darkness. The funnier it is, the more one must speculate on how much terror lies hidden.
The opening of the manuscript itself underlines that sentiment and also effectively establishes the total unreliability (but winsome charm) of the book’s narrator:
First of all, let me just say that everything I am going to tell you is the complete and absolute truth. Well yes, I would say that, wouldn’t I? And since I’ve just sworn an oath to this effect, it might seem pointless to offer further assurances, particularly since I can’t back them up. I can’t call witnesses, I can’t produce evidence. All I can do is tell you my story. You’re either going to believe me or you’re not.
It has to be admitted that this sub-genre does adhere to a formula. As with Highsmith and Sutton, a minor slight or event escalates into something more serious which in turn escalates into murder — and at that point we are still less than halfway through the book, so things get even more seriously criminal and complex in the remainder. Another aspect of the formula (when successfully executed) is that the author uses the slower opening sections to allow his or her anti-hero to make some cryptic observations on class and society (that’s how they sow the charm). These tend to ebb at about the three-quarters point of the novel — from there on in, most of the narrative is devoted to tying up the complex web of plot strands the author has put in place. That structural summary is true for Highsmith and Sutton and applies equally here.
The set-up for Dirty Tricks starts innocently enough at a dinner party in tony North Oxford. Our narrator, a contract teacher at the highly suspect Oxford International Language College, arrives by bicycle at the residence of Dennis and Karen Parsons (where a BMW is parked in the drive). Dennis is the accountant for the corrupt owner of the College — the narrator met the couple at a College party the week before and it somehow resulted in an invitation to dinner. Let me offer two of Dibdin’s trenchant observations that come from this section:
It began, inevitably, at a dinner party. That’s where the social action is in my country, among people of my class. Half the English feed fast and early and then go down the pub to drink beer, the other half eat a slow meal late and drink wine before, during and after. (I am anxious that you should understand the customs and manners of the country where the events in question took place, so different from your own. Otherwise it may be difficult to appreciate how very natural it is that things should have turned out as they did.)
That is quickly followed with his thoughts on the phoniness of the Parson’s opulent home and circumstances:
Nevertheless, even though it wasn’t quite the real thing, Dennis had done all right for himself. When I was young, accountants used to be figures of fun. Not the least of the many surprises I got on returning home [after living abroad for some time] was to find that all that had changed. For the kids today, the people we used to snigger at are role models, swashbuckling marauders sailing the seas of high finance, corporate raiders whose motto is ‘Get in, get out, get rich’. Dennis Parsons was an accountant of the new ‘creative’ variety, for whom the firm’s actual turnover represents only the original idea on which the completed tax return is based. When it came to cooking the books, Dennis was in the Raymond Blanc class.
Remember, Dibdin wrote this novel in 1991 — the fallout from the economic corruption that he presaged in that quote did not actually come to pass until almost two decades later.
Our narrator is sufficiently “under class” in the assembled party that he gets nervous, which leads to a leg cramp which in turn causes him to grope around with his foot under the dinner table. He is astonished when moments later “I felt an answering pressure on my own foot” — it has come from the hostess, Karen Parsons.
Literally one-half page later, our narrator heads to the loo — where he is “jumped” by Karen, who straddles his hips and begins frantically French-kissing him, an embrace that ends only when her husband approaches in search of more wine and is less than six feet away. Their “affair” has started and, also, acquired its central characteristic. Karen is not so much interested in sex with the narrator as she is in having sex with her husband dangerously close by.
To keep this “affair” going, it is required that the narrator spends a fair bit of time around both Parsons — and Dibdin uses those occasions to good satiric effect. Without giving too much away, that leads to the first “accident” (or “crime”, depending on your point of view) — a drunken Dennis insists upon a punting trip down the swollen Cherwell right into the even faster flowing Isis/Thames where he topples from the punt and the narrator “accidentally” pounds him fatally on the head with the pole while trying to rescue him.
For those familiar with Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin I am sure that sounds an echo, one that is well-placed. Dibdin not only makes reference to Zola’s novel, much of Dirty Tricks is an homage — albeit one with humor — to the French master’s work.
As in that novel, Karen and the narrator get married shortly after Dennis’ demise and start a relationship that just doesn’t work. It is at this point that the plot dominoes start getting larger and falling more rapidly — you can check out both Kimbofo and Guy’s reviews above for more details on that if you need them.
If the satire carries the first part of the book (and it certainly did for me), the author needs to have his characters firmly and three-dimensionally lodged in the reader’s mind when the plot takes over (although it is worth noting that Zola said his novel was “to study temperments and not characters”) — and again Dibdin succeeds. And he has in reserve the additional element that this manuscript is a formal court document in a shady foreign country; he uses that device to exceptionally good, if somewhat tidy, effect as the novel concludes.
All in all, Dirty Tricks provides another excellent addition to the charming rogues gallery — I do rather wish he had a name for convenient reference. While it doesn’t have the literary quality of the Highsmith novels — or the modern bitterness of Sutton’s take on contemporary London — it is an entirely worthwhile read. Highly recommended.