Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 256 pages; 1999.
I do like a nasty narrator in a novel and the unnamed narrator in Michael Dibden’s Dirty Tricks is right up there with the nastiest. He is also one of the most unreliable you will come across in modern fiction.
When the book opens, the narrator addresses us as if we are in a foreign court about to determine his fate. He tells us that he is going to tell us “the complete and absolute truth”. We know that he is living in exile, possibly somewhere in South America, and that the British Government, which describes him as a “sordid sex murderer”, has issued an extradition request for him to return to the UK. He admits that his “story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind” but that he is “innocent of the murders” detailed in the request.
But what we don’t know is how many people he (allegedly) murdered and in what circumstances. In fact, we know very little about the crimes, other than it all began 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.) When I say dinner parties, I mean drinking parties with a cooked meal thrown in.
You will gather by that quote that our narrator has a sense of humour and he’s never more at home than when he is able to poke fun at the English middle-classes to which he so desperately wants to belong. That’s because he’s not really made much of his life — despite being brought up in the Home Counties by respectable, hard-working parents. He is 40, still living in shared student accommodation in the “East Oxford slums” and gets about town on a “tenth-hand push-bike”. He doesn’t have many friends and he certainly doesn’t have a regular girlfriend. He gets by teaching English to foreign students at a school run by a man he hates.
Entangled with a middle-class couple
But when he meets the Parsons — Karen, a physical education teacher from Liverpool, and her husband Dennis, a successful accountant cum wine snob — a whole new world opens up to him, one in which people live in large detached houses, drive Volvos and Audis, have successful careers and pensions.
It is at the aforementioned dinner party that his entanglement with the Parsons begins: during the meal he believes Karen is playing footsies with him under the table. This leads to all kinds of shenanigans — and he begins a rather sordid affair with Karen that is detailed in quite an explicit way (if you don’t like dirty sex scenes, this is definitely not the book for you).
Once our narrator has inveigled his way into Karen’s life, events get increasingly more outrageous — and hilarious — and if I said any more it would ruin the enjoyment for other readers.
No moral compass
The best thing about reading Dirty Tricks is being taken on a ride — in all senses of the word — by a narrator, who not only lacks a moral compass, he doesn’t even seem to know which way is up. Initially, it’s easy to pity him — a poor man who life and luck has overlooked — but then as the narrative unfurls you begin to get a better sense of his strange, skewed outlook on life. Our narrator not only has an inflated sense of his own importance, he is so lacking in empathy for anyone around him that he can only be described as a psychopath.
But while the underbelly of the book is very dark, it made me laugh out loud more than anything I’ve read since Jon Canter’s A Short Gentleman. The further you get into the book, the more shocking our narrator’s behaviour becomes. He manipulates people for his own end, but never seems to see the error of his ways. It is always someone else’s fault. The humour mainly works because of the way in which he justifies his actions — and maintains his angelic innocence!
Thanks to se71 for alerting me to Dirty Tricks when I wrote about novels starring amoral protagonists earlier in the year. This delicious and very wicked black comedy — first published in 1991 — was perfectly in tune with my dry sense of humour.