Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks is a satirical thriller set in Oxford at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Its narrator is a forty-something tutor at the Oxford International Language College, someone who by his own estimation hasn’t risen to the heights of professional or financial success that his Oxford degree had led him to expect. He’s a cynical malcontent, with a clear-eyed understanding of the mechanisms of social class and cultural capital. He embarks on an affair with Karen Parsons, wife of Dennis Parsons, the accountant for the language college. There’s lust and covetousness involved, but little passion and no empathy. By the end of the novel, Dennis and Karen are both dead, and the narrator has fled to South America. (At a notional level, the novel is his account of events in response to an extradition request; there’s a slight framing narrative that consists of letters between diplomats). The narrator describes himself in Thatcherite jargon, speaking of his belated conversion to ‘the doctrine of self-help and free enterprise’, but his knowingness about such things makes descriptions of him as a ‘Thatcherite’ reductive or at least inadequate to the complexities of the narration. When untrustworthy narrators define themselves as being this or that, you have to wonder whether they’re engaged in deception and/or self-delusion. The novel was published in June 1991, and I imagine it was completed shortly before Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister in November 1990.
I can’t remember where I first heard of the novel, but I think it was on a list of ‘Novels Set in Oxford’ (perhaps Val McDermid’s), and I was particularly interested because it was set in contemporary Oxford (as it was back then), and because it’s about a social world that’s not directly connected to the University. To be sure, the narrator uses University education (or its absence) to define and place the people he meets: as far as he’s concerned, there’s a divide between the materialistic characters like Dennis, and others who supposedly define their lives by reference to culture and ‘higher things.’ But the action is mostly set in the residential suburbs — Summertown, Divinity Road, Headington, and on a brief holiday in the Dordogne — and University people appear only in passing as socially difficult dinner-party guests. Near the end, as the second of the deaths is reinvestigated, the narrator is called into Oxford police station by ‘Chief Inspector Moss, or some such name’: Moss is a ‘paunchy, balding bloke in is mid-fifties’, sitting at a table doing a crossword puzzle. As the narrator enters the room, ‘he started whistling a phrase which I recognized with some surprise as the Fate motif from Wagner’s Ring cycle.’ This joke — not at all typical of Dirty Tricks — reminds us that this is not, on the whole, the world of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse.
The sharpness of the narrator’s analyses of social pretensions makes him enjoyable company for a while, but the depth of his cynicism, and particularly the way it manifests as misogyny, makes him an uncomfortable companion. He dislikes Karen’s ‘Merseyside vowels’, he dislikes her botched pretentious taste; he doesn’t even find her physically attractive. The affair is best accounted for using something like René Girard’s notion of mimetic desire: the narrator desires Karen not out of any fundamental romantic or biological urge, but because he wants to be, or be like, Dennis and the other materially successful men in the novel. The affair makes sense at that level, but that doesn’t make the narrator a likeable person to spend time with. Moreover, as he becomes more preoccupied with the plot of his own devising, the narrator has less time to make the kinds of social observations that had made him initially interesting; or, to put it another way, the narrative no longer requires him to think that way.
The novel’s social observations are subtle enough to have survived. By 1990, there were plenty of stock characters available to a novelist wishing to write some sort of Condition of England novel about Thatcher’s Britain: in works such as Martin Amis’s Money (1984), Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), or David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988). It would have been possible to construct a plausible satirical novel that relied as much on recycled literary materials as it did on direct observation and original thinking. By tying the characters to a particular part of the economy — language schools — characterised by short-term contracts, and their employment of tutors who are typically over-qualified for the work that they’re doing, and by their selling of the cultural capital that comes through acquiring the English language, Dibdin locates the novel concretely in Thatcherite Britain. The accountants and businessmen are types, and they drive the appropriate makes of car, but they don’t feel recycled. There are also obvious risks in writing about Oxford, in that the place is over-layered with other people’s literary versions of it, but Dibdin makes it seem real: he makes the social distinctions between its different districts seem plausible, and the appearance of the city is never fetishized or employed merely for scenic effect. It’s interesting to speculate how Dirty Tricks will look as a novel in ten or twenty years time: how convincing a portrait of the era it will seem, compared to other novels and films from the time. (I was living in Oxford in 1990, and knew people working in the language-school world, so I’m also curious to know how it reads to people more distant from those milieux). My guess is that it will stand up quite well; but the exclusive focus on the consciousness of the narrator, and the consequent flatness of the characters who surround him, particularly the women, means that it misses some of the complexity of the times.