Friday, May 22, 2009

The Book You Have to Read: “Putting the
Boot In,” by Dan Kavanagh

(Editor’s note: This is the 52nd installment of our Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Michael Walters, the British author of three crime novels set in contemporary Mongolia: The Shadow Walker, The Adversary, and The Outcast. He also writes the aptly titled Michael Walters’s Blog.)

My battered old paperback copy of Putting the Boot In carries a quote from critic Harriet Waugh. Dan Kavanagh, she tells us confidently, “is here to stay.” Sadly, her confidence was misplaced. Nearly 25 years on, not only is Dan Kavanagh nowhere to be seen, but most crime-fiction fans have probably never heard of him.

In a way, that’s perhaps not too surprising. Notwithstanding the entertaining (and mutually contradictory) biographies printed in the fly-leaves of his novels, Dan Kavanagh never really existed. He was as much a fictional construct as his hero, the bisexual security consultant known only as Duffy. Long before John Banville invented “Benjamin Black,” Dan Kavanagh was the crime-writing alter-ego of another well-known mainstream novelist, Julian Barnes. Those who know Barnes only through elegant, witty, and highly literary books such as Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) or A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989) may be surprised to learn that the Duffy books are, in the words of Barnes’ one-time associate Martin Amis, “refreshingly nasty.” They are also, at least in my view, considerably more successful than Amis’ own forays into the crime-fiction world.

There are only four Duffy books in all. Barnes has claimed that they were the result of an “excess of energy” at the time and has expressed no desire to return to them--although he has arguably made at least a partial return to crime fiction in his recent novel about Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur and George (2005). Each of the four books has a distinct setting and is full of what one reviewer described as “scary insider’s data,” which is either carefully researched or brilliantly made-up (I rather hope the latter). The first, Duffy (1980), is set in the vice dens of London’s Soho district and fully lives up to Amis’ description--to the point where one scene might well render the book, to contemporary sensibilities, unrepublishable. The second, Fiddle City (1981), does a similar job for Heathrow Airport, described by one character as “a city … as big as Newcastle, and the population changes every day.” If you read it, you’ll probably head for Gatwick next time. The last of the four novels, Going to the Dogs (1987), is possibly the least successful--a spoof country house mystery in which the “body in the library” comprises, respectively, a dog and a collection of videotapes.

The third book, though, is my personal favorite. Putting the Boot In (1985) is, despite the title, rather gentler and perhaps more distinctively English than its predecessors, but skewers its subject matter with hilarious precision. It’s concerned with the down-at-heels world of lower-league football (soccer, that is). In some ways, more than two decades on, the book reads as a period piece. Certainly, its portrayal of the supposedly glamorous world of what was then First Division soccer seems quaint by today’s billionaire Premier League standards. But its depiction of the footballing also-rans--the lower-division clubs struggling against relegation and financial collapse--remains surprisingly resonant in our credit-crunched times.

The tone of the book is set from its terrific opening: “There are too many ways of breaking a footballer’s leg. Too many, that is, from the footballer’s point of view. Others may find the freedom of choice encouraging.” As it turns out, this freedom of choice isn’t just confined to the pitch. Duffy is called in when Danny Matson, lead scorer with struggling Third Division Athletic, has his Achilles’ tendon snapped in what appears to be an unsuccessful mugging. Jimmy Lister, former England player and now the team’s ineffectual manager, believes that someone is trying to undermine the club, sabotaging its performance on the pitch while stirring up trouble among supporters and local residents.

Duffy’s attempts to investigate lead him into a distinctively 1980s world of small-minded citizens, cynical nationalist politics, racist thugs, and low-rent business corruption. Distinctively 1980s, that is, except that most of those elements could still be found, in mildly updated form, in today’s inner cities. Kavanagh’s characters are grotesques, but oddly recognizable. There’s the creepy leader of the racist Red White and Blue Movement who wears a bowler hat indoors while insisting on arm-wrestling a shirtless Duffy (toast and marmalade is also involved, but I’ll leave you to track down that scene for yourself). There’s poor Danny Matson, the not-quite-good-enough striker who, even before his mugging, will never escape the lower divisions, but who carries around a magazine photograph of a famous England player’s living room (“Look at the way the stereo’s built in. That must have cost a bomb.”). And there’s Duffy himself, smart and cynical when it counts, but constantly suffering from what today would be characterized as obsessive-compulsive syndrome, worrying about everything from AIDS (its prominence being another indicator of this book’s mid-’80s setting) to whether he’s cooked his frozen pizza for too long. Not to mention the recurrent question: whether he’s too short to be a decent goalkeeper.

Putting the Boot In has its faults. In particular, Kavanagh doesn’t quite seem to know where to take the plot, which dribbles to its conclusion in a manner perhaps reminiscent of one of Athletic’s hapless midfield players. But it’s Duffy’s voice that stays with you, sounding a distinctively English note--dogged, principled (in a pragmatic kind of way), melancholic, and never entirely secure. The elegiac tone is like little else in crime fiction. Even the top footballers, the “pampered swaggerers,” Duffy notes at one point, eventually go down the tunnel for the last time and find “it’s colder there, and they don’t feel so tall, and no-one applauds ... a 40 watt bulb overhead, and a concrete floor underneath. No grass any more: if you fall, this time it will really hurt. And that tunnel is the rest of your life.” A sentiment which the likes of George Best or Paul Gascoigne would surely have recognized.

1 comment:

Ali Karim said...

Excellent peice, good to meet you at Crimefest and we did well in the Quiz against the Uber EuroMonkey team -