Written by Dan Kavanagh — You don’t find many crime novels with a blurb – “exciting, funny and refreshingly nasty” – by Martin Amis. That literary connection is a clue to the real identity of Dan Kavanagh. According to the entertaining yet spurious author biography, Kavanagh is an Irishman who travelled the Americas where he worked as a steer wrestler, a waiter-on-roller-skates and a bouncer at a gay bar in San Francisco. In reality, Duffy is the first in series of hilariously sleazy crime novels from the 1980s published under a pseudonym by the Booker Prize-winning author Julian Barnes.
Although it was written in Simenon-style haste almost 35 years ago, this reissue of Duffy stands up remarkably well to contemporary crime novels set in London. Barnes may have written it as a bit of lark, but he’s clearly revelling in the smut and sadistic violence that would never appear in his literary novels.
What has transferred from the Barnes books to his crime career is the ironic, questioning voice and the precision of his prose. Duffy is a fast-moving, violent and very funny crime novel; it’s also got wonderful writing. And Barnes can certainly create suspense, as he showed with The Sense of an Ending and Arthur & George, a fictional account of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.
Nick Duffy is no Sherlock Holmes. Our anti-hero is a bisexual ex-policeman who was forced out of the vice squad over an incident he doesn’t like to talk about. It also ruined his relationship with fellow cop Carol, though they have maintained an uneasy platonic partnership while Duffy seeks out men and women for one-night stands.
By day Duffy runs a security company, which puts him in contact with businessman Brian McKechnie, an importer of toys, jokes and amusing masks. McKechnie has little to smile about, however, as he’s being pressured for payments over the phone by a mysterious gangster who seems to know a lot about him.
The businessman daren’t risk not paying up after a pair of thugs made a visit to his wife, who was left traumatised by the incident (though not as much as the pet cat). ‘Time for Stanley, I’m afraid,’ is the chilling announcement made to Mrs McKechnie to indicate that a retractable blade is about to be used on her.
When the police fail to help, Duffy is hired for the case though he’s reluctant to return to his old vice patch of Soho, especially when it emerges that the gangster behind the extortion racket is also heavily involved in the area’s sex trade. Duffy looks up a former prostitute contact and soon goes beyond what might be considered research in the city’s seedy underbelly – all on McKechnie’s bill.
The depiction of 1980s Soho strip joints and porn cinemas is laugh-out-loud funny as well as being very graphic, though you’ll forgive Duffy’s outrageous behaviour simply because he’s such smart, entertaining company. He’s got some good one-liners and Barnes scatters his dialogue with scraps of gangland slang. The private detective also reveals a few cunning tricks of the trade, though sometimes it’s just for show to keep the clients happy.
Corrupt cops soon enter the equation and Duffy’s warned off the case more than once, but he can’t stop digging when he suspects there’s a connection to his expulsion from the force a few years earlier.
With his colourful lifestyle and OCD episodes, Duffy is not your typical detective – and this is not your typical detective novel. It’s gripping, witty and sometimes horrible and hysterical at the same time, particularly an eye-watering torture scene that will put you off the supermarket cheese counter for some time. Julian Barnes’s foray into the crime genre is an absolute riot – and the good news is there are three more reissues featuring Nick Duffy to look forward to over the next 12 months.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars