Duffy by Dan Kavanagh (Julian Barnes)

“That was one of the points about corruption: you never thought about the side-effects at the time.”

Duffy, the first novel in a British PI series from author Dan Kavanagh caught my attention mainly because Kavanagh is the pen name for none other than Julian Barnes, and when you consider how serious his recent novel is, you realise that an author’s writing life consists of very specific phases. I’ve been a fan of Barnes for many years–loved Flaubert’s Parrot and Staring at the Sun, so Julian Barnes writing a crime series?… I’m in. The series was published back in the 80s, and that probably explains why the tone reminded me so much of Before She Met Me, a Barnes novel published back in 1982.

duffyDuffy begins very strongly with a bizarre home invasion. Mrs McKechnie, a middle-class woman who would seem to have no enemies whatsoever is tied up and cut by two men. It’s a very professional job (except for what happens to the cat), and the incident seems to be a message for Brian McKechnie, a London businessman who sells party items at his drab little London office. Under the threat of additional violence, McKechnie is then systematically squeezed for cash; it seems to be a case of blackmail as the perps know that McKechnie’s “mistress [who] doubled as his secretary,” but if it’s simple blackmail then why the home invasion and the violence towards McKechnie’s innocent–albeit dull–wife? The local Guildford police are mystified by the case and consider the incident the “work of a maniac, pair of maniacs,” while the London police obviously don’t give a toss.  Enter PI Duffy, a bisexual ex-copper set up on vice charges and drummed out of the force in disgrace.

Life for Duffy has been going downhill since he left the force. He’s hobbled together a PI firm that mostly dabbles in petty jobs, and while he manages to pay the rent, his relationship with his girlfriend, Carol, never recovered. When he’s contacted by McKechnie to investigate the identity of the man behind the pressure, Duffy steps back to Soho on to his old turf– hookers, peep shows, porno films, and porn mag shops, and once Duffy starts digging he realizes that his unresolved past is connected to the McKechnie case.

In spite of its subject matter, Duffy has a light, ironic and amusing tone. This is partly Kavanagh’s style but it’s also the colorful characters who step across Duffy’s path. Everyone in the sex biz is a professional here, and that includes an aging workhorse hooker, and a motley bunch of peep show girls, and there’s even a gang boss whose taste for decorating could be amusing if he weren’t so vicious. Duffy once worked vice, but now he’s just another customer cruising through the tacky sex shops of Soho where sex isn’t glamorous or even exciting–it’s just damn hard work.   If you’re the type who’s offended by the Blue World, then this is not a book for you–if however, you have no problem with Duffy attending, and sharing details of peep shows and moronic porn films, then you may enjoy this off-beat PI tale:

He glanced at the rack of Big Tit mags, whose publishers had always seemed to work harder at the titles of their mags. D-Cup was still going strong, he noted, and so was 42-Plus. Bazooms was there too, making tits sound like ballistic missiles, and a new one called Milkmaids.

At one point, Duffy sits in on a porn film, and his description of the thin, ridiculous plot is really very funny, but best of all, for this reader is Duffy’s explanations for just how a copper becomes corrupt:

Still, every year around the Golden Mile brought different temptations. He knew how it happened: you didn’t take the free booze even if everyone else did; you didn’t take the first girl you got offered; you turned down the smokes and the snort; and then something quite trivial happened, like you asked for a couple of days to pay at the bookie’s. Quite suddenly, the place had got you. It wasn’t necessarily that there was a particular gang always on the look-out to bend coppers (though sometimes there was); it was somehow the place that got you. It was one square mile of pressure, and everyone had a weak point.

Duffy, a man with a fetish for neatness, makes an interesting series character. He knows how to BS the punters who want all the bells and whistles of PI work, but nevertheless he takes his job very seriously. The novel argues that working vice, stepping in a world in which every imaginable desire is for sale, is a corrupting environment which will stain any copper who lingers there long enough.

Review copy



Filed under Barnes Julian, Fiction, Kavanagh Dan

11 responses to “Duffy by Dan Kavanagh (Julian Barnes)

  1. Annabel (gaskella)

    Ooh – I’ve wanted to read Barnes’ Duffy books for ages so how wonderful to see they’re coming back into print (at least I hope they’re doing the series, not just the first one). Sounds very 1980s, but that’s retro nowadays and cool!

  2. Thank you for posting about this series. I’m devoted to Julian Barnes’s work, so discovering that Dan Kavanagh is Barnes is a bright light in this brutal winter we’re having.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  3. I bought the rest of the series, Judith, so I’ll be reading them sometime.

  4. Now this is great. I had no idea he wrote crime novels. Like you I like his first books, so I’ll certainly pick this up.

    • Yes, there’s this really funny bio about “Dan Kavanagh” on Goodreads:
      “Dan Kavanagh was born in County Sligo, Ireland, in 1946. He has been an entertainment officer on a Japanese supertanker, a waiter on roller skates at a drive-in eatery in Tucson, and a bouncer in a gay bar in San Francisco. He lives in Islington, North London, and works in jobs that (with mild paranoia) he declines to specify.”

  5. Brian Joseph

    I do believe that exposure to negative environments, be they corrupting, unprofessional does rub off on people in all sorts of ways.This is a great theme to explore in a book like this.

    • when you think about how much time you spend at work, you realize that the environment has to impact your life (often for the negative). I read this piece by Australian author Max Barry, many of his novels focus on the corporate world, and in the article he described how his wife has to detox/wind down/debrief for a while after she came home.

  6. Thanks for the link to The Sense of an Ending.
    I’m curious about his crime fiction series. I always find it fascinating when a writer can switch from one style to the other like this.

    • Before She Met is the story of jealousy and sexual obsession which turns into crime, so there’s a link. I knew I had to read this when I saw that Barnes wrote it.

  7. I’ve read all the Duffy novels, years before I learned Kavanagh was Barnes (in fact, I read both authors around the same time and didn’t make the connection). I actually slightly prefer the Kavanaghs, they have a nice sense of dry irony that you bring out here, a sort of gentle resignation which works surprisingly well in books where actually fairly terrible things are happening.

    • I’ve got the rest of them here now, so sooner or later, I’ll be reading the series. Only the first one has made it to kindle so far, but I’d bet that the others will follow.

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