Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

One good reason for readers to blog is to pick up book tips, and this exact scenario occurred recently when I visited Kevin’s blog and noted that no less than two other bloggers: Kim and Max both recommended Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks (and yes it’s been made into a television film!). Kim compared Dirty Tricks to Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, and since that book was one of my favourite reads of 2011, that sealed the deal.

Dirty Tricks is narrated by a forty-year-old Oxford EFL teacher who pedals his “tenth-hand push-bike” from his shared flat in the slums of East Oxford to his pathetically underpaid job at the Oxford International Language College. It’s here that the narrator meets a married couple, the upwardly mobile and socially pretentious Parsons, accountant Dennis, “a wine bore of stupendous proportions,” and his sexually rapacious, PE teacher wife, Karen–a pencil-thin woman with a “large, predatory mouth, like the front-end grille on a cheap flashy motor.” After feeding Dennis’s wine snobbery, the narrator finds himself invited to a dinner party at the Parsons’ suburban home with the “lumpenbourgeoisie,” and he embarks on a sordid affair with Karen in which the biggest thrill comes not from orgasm but from the thrill of blatant coupling right under Dennis’s nose. After rubbing elbows with members of the consumer-driven middle-class, the narrator gets a taste of the good life, and following a holiday with the Parsons in a villa in the Dordogne, he decides it’s about time he moved up in the world…..

I wanted the lifestyle which other people of my age and education enjoyed but which I had forfeited because of the wayward direction given my life by the humanistic propaganda I was exposed to in my youth.  I didn’t crave fabulous riches or meaningless wealth, I simply wanted my due.

And just how Dibdin’s unnamed sociopathic protagonist decides to get his “due” is the subject of the novel, and since the tale is told by an unreliable narrator of classic proportions who refuses to play by society’s rules, Dirty Tricks is both transgressive and darkly comic.  The opening paragraphs of Dirty Tricks resembles a confession, but it’s not of course; this is a justification:

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.

Nevertheless, I am going to tell you the truth. Not because I’m incapable of lying. On the contrary, my story is riddled with deceptions, evasions, slanders and falsifications of every kind, as you will see. Nor do I expect you to believe me because my bearing is sincere and my words plausible. Such things might influence the judges of my own country, where people still pretend to believe in the essential niceness of the human race–or at least pretend to pretend.

Thus begins the narrator’s hilarious confessional narrative in which he explains and justifies his actions. He tells us his side of this sordid tale of adultery, murder, and social-climbing while waffling on the precise version of events until he creates one he intends to stick to.  Part of the reason the novel works so well is that all of the characters are unpleasant, and when the homicidal EFL teacher, a seething mass of envy with a self-admitted “yen for married women” is unleashed in suburbia, the results are explosively funny and wicked. Dibdin takes us deftly into the mind of the sociopathic narrator, and here he is applying grandiosity to murder

It is striking that at a time when just about every other human value has been called into question, the value of life is still universally accepted as an absolute. Despite this, I have no qualms about admitting to men of your culture and experience that the demise of Dennis Parsons seemed to me to be jolly desirable.

With this narrator, Dibdin creates an awful human being who’s always full of unpleasant surprises and whose base actions are unspeakably low and self-serving. Now matter how awful the narrator is, I found myself laughing out loud at his twisted, sick thinking. Just when I thought the narrator had sunk to his lowest behaviour, there were endless disgraceful actions in store.

I’ve always made a point of borrowing money from women early in the relationship so as to give them a hold over me. It also helps when the time comes to break off the affair, because you can talk about the money instead of feelings and love and messy, painful stuff like that.

In true sociopathic style, the narrator ambushes the reader with his twisted logic. Here he is discussing the past of one of his EFL students, Garcia:

Trish had given me a brief account of the allegations against him, but just to be on the safe side I phoned Amnesty International, posing as a researcher for a TV current affairs programme. Their response was unequivocal, a detailed catalogue of union leaders, students, newspaper editors, civil rights workers,  Jews, feminists, priests and intellectuals tortured and murdered, a whole politico-socio-economic subgroup targeted and taken out. I was dismayed. With a record like that, Garcia might well regard the menial task I had to offer him as beneath his dignity.

In this extremely entertaining novel, our narrator leaves a trail of revenge, death and disaster and yet always sees himself as the victim–a simple man who merely tried to turn his life around, and as the crimes rack up, his justifications become more complex, skewed and hilariously wicked. Author Michael Dibdin’s journey into the mind of a sociopath would be chilling if not for the humour, and for this reader the very best parts of this terrific novel occur when the narrator mimics the emotional responses he knows society expects of him.

For Kim’s review, go here. Kim also liked Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.


Filed under Dibdin Michael, Fiction

14 responses to “Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

  1. Another good one…His voice is hilarious in those quotes. I like the idea that he mimics the emotions that are expected. I’m still going to read Get Me Out of Here first. Is this one going to be on your 2012 list?

  2. leroyhunter

    Sounds pretty good Guy – that’s 3 strong recommendations.

    I read the first 2 of Dibdin’s Zen series a while back, and I liked them but haven’t really bothered catching up on the others. A mistake I think, as the middle books in the series are supposed to be great.

    For some reason the opening paragraph you quote makes me think of Banville’s The Book of Evidence. There’s a kinship between the voices, especially the whole “I’m being honest about the fact I’m not being honest with you” approach to the reader / audience.

    • I read the connection to Banville somewhere else…perhaps it was on Kim’s blog. I’ve never read any of the Aurelio Zen books but I’ll admit that I’m interested now.

  3. I was irritated last year by something Dibdin got wrong in one of his later Zen books – a polay on words that works in English but not in Italian, the language the characters are actually supposed to be speaking. I’d forgive a writer who hadn’t lived in Italy the odd anachronism but expected better from someone who’d lived and worked here. But I think I may just have been in a cantankerous mood – you’ve certainly convinced me to read this one. I also enjoyed the Sutton novel, and Kindle makes it all too easy to buy on a recommendation/whim!

  4. That should have been play. Polay isn’t a word I often use…

    • Didn’t think so. Anyway, if you’re in the right mood Dirty Tricks is as entertaining as it gets just for the sheer nastiness of the main character

  5. I read the first Zen novel, but never really continued with them. This though as you say Guy was just a lot of fun. I’m glad you liked it.

  6. I’m not in the mood for another journey in the mind of a sociopath, so I’ll pass on this one. (which sounds a lot like Get Me Out of Here, according to the quotes)

    It seems a good one in its genre, though.

  7. I thought you’d pass as it’s one of those, “if you liked this, then you’ll like this situations.”

  8. gaskella

    I read this ages ago. I remember really enjoying it and thinking that the bit of Oxford where all the posh folk lived would be really nice. I then went on to try a Zen novel, but didn’t get on with it then – need to try again.

  9. kimbofo

    Thanks for linking to my review — and so pleased you enjoyed this one as much as me. A terrificially wicked and base character, but so much fun! I chuckled a lot while reading the book — it was so shocking and horrific in places. Have you ever read A Short Gentleman by Jon Cant? The narrator is just as much fun, although he’s not quite as nasty. I think you’d like it.

    • I actually just bought that one Kim after seeing it mentioned on your blog. One of the things I really loved about Dirty Tricks is that you don’t expect this sort of behaviour from an EFL teacher and clearly his victims didn’t either. He’s as vicious as the most hardened criminal and yet here he is riding his old bike around Oxford, so if you met him you might chalk him up as eccentric or not caring about material possessions when the truth is not close to that.

      I laughed out loud at how perfectly rotten he is, so thanks for the tip–a truly wonderful read.

  10. Pingback: Dirty Tricks, by Michael Dibdin « KevinfromCanada

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