6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Wintering’ to ‘Dirty Tricks’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeI’m not sure where June went (I’m still trying to figure out what happened to May) and so this month’s Six Degrees of Separation — a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest —  caught me a little unawares. But at least I remembered: last month it completely passed me by! (Did anyone notice?)

Anyway, without further ado, here are the six books I have chosen for my chain. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Wintering’ by Katherine May (2020)

I’ve not heard of this non-fiction book before, but now having looked it up online I can see why: it holds absolutely no appeal to me. It supposedly “offers instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat” via “a moving personal narrative shot through with lessons from literature, mythology, and the natural world”. So, given this isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, it makes it difficult to know what to link it to, so I’m going for a seasonal theme and choosing…

Minds of Winter

‘Minds of Winter’ by Ed O’Loughlin (2016)

This “wide-screen” historical novel is themed around the exploration of both polar ice-caps over two centuries and is jam-packed with everything you would ever want to know about expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica. It also interleaves a modern-day storyline about the “Arnold 294” chronometer, an important marine timepiece, thought lost forever with Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition in the Canadian Arctic. However, when it reappeared in Britain 150 years later disguised as a Victorian carriage clock people began to wonder when and how it had been returned…

Wanting’ by Richard Flanagan (2008)

Sir John Franklin appears in this historical novel about a young Aboriginal girl, Mathinna, who was “adopted” by the Franklins in Tasmania as a kind of experiment to prove that the “savage” could be “tamed”.  Sir John was governor of Tasmania between 1836 and 1843 before he went on his ill-fated expedition to chart and navigate the Northwest Passage. Charles Dickens, who was briefly obsessed with Arctic exploration, is also another real life character in this novel.

‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’ great-granddaughter, and this comic novel — one of my favourites — is largely based on her time as a journalist working on an English provincial newspaper in the years after the Second World War. It reads very much like the diary of a young reporter learning the ropes and is filled with hilarious moments as Poppy tries to convince her editor that women are not a nuisance in the office. Poppy’s experience living in a boarding house ruled by a strict take-no-prisoners landlady is also very funny.

‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (1988)

Life in a boarding house features strongly in this blackly comic novel by Muriel Spark. The story focuses on a forthright young woman who works for a struggling book publisher. She deeply offends a purple-prosed author by calling him out on his bad writing and from there, things escalate into farce.

‘Get Me Out of Here’ by Henry Sutton (2010)

Bad behaviour is the central focus of this novel, another black comedy, in which Matt, a 30-something brand-obsessed businessman, loses his grip on reality. While he’s obnoxious, self-centred and absurdly funny, Matt is not what he seems. The author scatters little clues here and there which allow you to build up a picture of the real Matt — and it isn’t exactly pretty.

‘Dirty Tricks’ by Michaele Dibdin (1999)

A troubled character who is also unreliable and unscrupulous stars in this wickedly funny novel. The unnamed narrator justifies his behaviour in outlandish ways. Initially, it’s easy to pity him but as the narrative unfurls you begin to get a better sense of his strange, skewed outlook on life. He not only has an inflated sense of his own importance, but he is also so lacking in empathy for anyone around him that he can only be described as a psychopath. His behaviour is so bad that the book is laugh-out-loud funny!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a self-help book about self-care to a black comedy about a psychopath, via novels about polar exploration, taming a “savage” in Tasmania in the 19th century, being a woman reporter on a provincial newspaper in the 1940s, life in a 1950s London boarding house and bad behaviour by a businessman in the 2000s.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Michael Dibdin, Publisher, Setting

‘Dirty Tricks’ by Michael Dibdin

Dirty-Tricks

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.

‘Truthful’ testimony

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.