The author biography accompanying this slim crime novel reads like what it is – a fiction, and not an especially subtle one. The 1990s omnibus of Kavanagh’s four Duffy novels (originally written and published in the 80s), has a similar paragraph inside its front cover. It has a few sentences in common with the revamped version, but the earlier account is just mundane enough to be believed: ‘a range of employment at various points on the social spectrum’ is replaced in the new edition by ‘he left home at seventeen and signed on as a deckhand on a Liberian tanker. After jumping ship at Montevideo, he roamed across the Americas taking a variety of jobs’. Both versions agree that the author was born in County Sligo in 1946 and that ‘he is currently working in London, at jobs he declines to specify, and lives in north Islington.’ This reissued, rebranded, ‘Dan Kavanagh’ comes complete with a seedy looking author website and blurred photographs that looks suspiciously like Julian Barnes wearing a dodgy moustache. Even though it is thumpingly obvious, nowhere are we explicitly told that Dan Kavanagh is a pseudonym.
Fiddle City, originally published in 1981, is the second book in a series of crime novels which began with the publication of Duffy (1980, reissued 2014) in the same year as Barnes’s first novel Metroland, and continued with Putting the Boot In (1985) and Going to the Dogs (1987). In an interview at the 2013 Passa Porta Festival in Brussels, Barnes claims that, having spent ‘about seven or eight years’ on his first novel he ‘wrote [his] first thriller in 10 days’. He makes this telling distinction – thriller versus novel – throughout the interview and doesn’t seem all that convincing when he tells the interviewer ‘I’m not ashamed’. He reminds her that he has also authored a book on cookery and insists that ‘[he tries] to be interested in everything’. This was, Barnes tells us, just something he did at the beginning of his career and outgrew as his literary fiction took off. Perhaps this is why, unlike John Banville, say, who enthusiastically owns his pseudonymous crime novels, Barnes hasn’t been all that vocal about his forays in the genre or engaged much with their reissue.
Duffy, the investigator-protagonist at the centre of this series, is a bundle of tics and neuroses. He is an obsessive compulsive ex-policeman with a chip on his shoulder about his ignominious exit from the police force. He dislikes air travel, which he considers extraordinarily dangerous – he doesn’t even trust aeroplanes flying overhead – and has a bizarrely strong aversion to airhostesses. He packages everything in plastic, insists that anyone staying in his flat put their watch in a Tupperware container to mute the ticking, and has a fraught relationship with his sort-of-girlfriend who he no longer sleeps with. It is fair to say that most of the characters in this novel are painted with broad strokes, Duffy especially so.
Perhaps this is part of what Barnes meant when, explaining his turn to thriller writing, he talks about the attraction of a relatively rigid genre which relies on ‘certain givens’, ‘certain formal constraints’. After he was a few novels into the series, ‘the formal constraints seemed to press too much on [him]’; he started to feel that ‘[he]’d invented various things for the main character and the people around him’ and was ‘stuck with them’. This oppressive feeling of being pressed upon by inflexible tropes and formulas carries over into the reading experience; though very competently handled, in places this novel feels painted by numbers.
There is nothing remotely noir-ish or Hollywood about Fiddle City. It feels seedy and mundane in a likable, low-budget TV-detective sort of way. The crime at the centre of this novel revolves around relatively small-time crooks operating out of Heathrow – affectionately nicknamed Fiddle City by customs officials. Duffy is brought in to investigate some thefts from a haulage company reluctant to involve the police. Working undercover in the warehouse, Duffy discovers that these relatively petty losses are a miniscule part of a much bigger picture.
The exchanges between Duffy and Willet, the customs officer he goes to for advice, are a particular highlight. Their conversations touch on the devastating consequences of the drug trade all along the supply chain – from producers to users. And at times, these interludes are really quite shocking. The description of freshly dead and hollowed out babies used to carry drugs across borders is a particularly harrowing moment. ‘The smugglers kill them, take out their internal organs, then stuff them with bags of heroin… And the other thing is – don’t forget this, I don’t – they always have to be got across the border within twelve hours of being killed. Otherwise the colour will have drained out of their faces and they won’t be any use.’ These interludes point to a larger story and plug the grubby dealings of minor crooks in a mundane ‘fiddle city’ into a far darker network of international crime.
The plot culminates in revelations that feel both formulaic and incomplete. We are taken through the motions of a conclusion but never really get to the bottom why the criminals do what they do or how their unlikely relationships began. By the time the crooks are caught, we’ve known for quite a while who’s responsible for what but why remains more of a mystery. There are many suggestive hints – one character keeps a framed photo of an accomplice face down in her desk drawer – but these are never really developed upon.
For all its limitations, Fiddle City does have its charms. For a start, Dan Kavanagh writes like Julian Barnes and, even if the plot is at times relatively uninspiring, the prose is assured enough that it mostly carries us along with it. Fiddle City is a pretty ordinary crime novel elevated by a capable narrator and prose that – though probably not its author’s best work – hardly misses a beat.
Any Cop?: This is a solid and entertaining thriller with the added, and unusual, benefit of being written by a skilled novelist. While it’s not in the same league as Barnes’ literary fiction – and doesn’t try to be – some of his magic can’t help but rub off.