I encountered Michael Dibdin relatively recently after having spent many years in the company of more classical exponents of the murder mystery genre. His Aurelio Zen series therefore evoked gentle pleasure rather than the more satisfying cerebral stimulation that classicists such as PD James or Elizabeth George invariably provoke.
Dirty Tricks, however, is entirely a different kettle of fish. Imagine James M. Cain and Jim Thompson transported from the gritty American urban world to genteel English suburbia. Crime noir at its finest. You get the typical story of a loser who is caught up in a whirlpool of misfortune that is almost completely of his own making and who cannot make a single decision that does not break some law or moral ethic with the finality of a femur cracking in a dozen places. You also get sparkling wit, wicked satire and a fine English sensibility brought to bear on social situations that, let's face it, most have encountered at some time or the other.
Mr Dibdin's unnamed 40-something protagonist is urbane, suave, sophisticated, erudite. He is also completely amoral, cynical, selfish and quite vicious. Oh, and he's also a loser. His first-person narrative is sandwiched between a set of correspondence that appears to be between two diplomats seeking his extradition from an anonymous banana republic to stand trial. The mail makes for an obscure start to the book as one desperately tries to figure out the allusions and just what is going on. However, as it lasts a mere two pages, it isn't long before Michael - I shall call him Michael, for want of a name - starts his story. And it is a tale exceedingly well told.
By the way, a couple of reviewers have referred to the central character as "Tim", which just goes to prove my point that the opening correspondence in the book is obscure and confusing. That correspondence is signed "Tim" but it is quite evidently not from the main narrator who remains nameless, as far as I can remember.
Nameless, Michael may be, but unmemorable he certainly isn't. The true test of a first-person narrative by a despicable cad is if the author can contrive to make the reader identify with the cad in some way. I don't mean sympathize, for one obviously doesn't sympathize with someone as deplorably deficient in morality as Michael, dear me, no. That would be quite the wrong thing to do, and we readers most certainly don't want to get caught doing the wrong thing. That's why we need characters like Michael to do them for us. So we don't sympathize with Michael, but we do something else. We cheer him on as he slides his sharp, often self-deprecating stiletto into the fussy and hypocritical mores we take for granted in our lives even as we tut-tut over his inevitable slide into the pit he has dug for himself.
Michael's lampooning of the people he meets and the social situations he encounters is, of course, symptomatic of his selfishness and his view of himself as the center of the universe. But it is so damnably accurate and spot on that it makes you laugh out loud. And of course, you wish you could say things like that with half as much wit and erudition to people who deserve them twice as much as poor Michael's victims.
Mr Dibdin's writing is effortless and his double entendres and sexual allusions (and descriptions) walk the difficult tightrope of being funny, appalling, vulgar and sophisticated, all at the same time. Quite like Michael.
I shall not spoil your pleasure by detailing the plot or the other characters. Suffice it to say that there are deaths (few crime stories would be complete without one or more), though no mysteries, and much stratagems and spoils. It is by turns subtle (especially the way Michael gets his come-uppance in the last two pages) and in-your-face. Above all, there is considerable enjoyment to be derived.
At 241 pages, Dirty Tricks is a refreshingly slim, but by no means slight, read.