Written by Dan Kavanagh — When Julian Barnes’s pseudonymous PI novel Duffy was reissued earlier this year, the literary author found himself welcomed into the crime genre. Written under the name Dan Kavanagh, Duffy was a scandalously funny, violent and sordid debut from a writer who was clearly relishing a brief spell – he claimed to write them in days, not months – away from more considered writing. Decades after the books fell out of print, the series found belated recognition for its waspish, ironic prose and the presence of a bisexual ex-cop as a hero – a daring move in the early 80s.
However, Fiddle City is an altogether less satisfactory sequel in which Duffy attempts to uncover a spate of petty thefts from a warehouse that processes freight at Heathrow Airport. It’s not the most promising set-up for a crime story, though it certainly has some moments to shock you or make you smirk.
The novel begins on the M4 motorway with an eight-page description of a deliberate car crash that has you hooked and horrified, particularly as this was an era when wearing seatbelts was optional. The crash victim was an employee at Hendrick Freight, the company where Duffy ends up working undercover to find the thief who’s making off with the merchandise.
Of course, the crash is connected to the thieving, though it takes time for Duffy to unlock this investigation. As a result, Fiddle City is in large part a book about a private investigator passing himself off as a warehouseman. He loads and unloads deliveries, goes for lunch in the canteen with a grunting colleague and tries not to fall out with the frosty manager Mrs Boseley, a former air stewardess he suspects of concealing a secret.
The case gets more interesting when Duffy calls on a Heathrow customs officer for advice on how contraband gets smuggled into the country. Assuming this is based on Barnes’s research rather than his imagination, it’s an eye-opening account of the lengths criminals will go to in order to profit from drugs. At one point, the customs officer suggests that secreting drugs in glued-up pistachio shells might just get past him.
Duffy’s unique charm resides in his sardonic voice, burgeoning OCD and streetwise character, though he seems unusually moralistic on the scourge of drugs. It turns out that he once had a friend who became hopelessly addicted to heroin and flagrantly stole his possessions.
The detective’s only solace in this tiresome case is his long-term girlfriend, a cop, though their relationship has become platonic as a result of the trauma of his ousting from the force. He frets over her romantic excursions, while himself meeting strangers in gay bars. Sex is an obligatory element of a Duffy novel and the detective goes undercover in a sleazy club for research purposes. With his fastidious prose, Barnes depicts the Soho vice trade as pathetic, grubby and spectacularly poor value for money.
The author also has a penchant for torture scenes and Duffy shows his menacing side when the investigation comes to its conclusion. But Fiddle City is a stuttering story in which the amusing, elegant prose is more memorable than the plot. Hopefully the next installment in this revived crime series will have more suspense to accompany the sex and sadism.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars