What do you get when you mix alcohol addiction with an inquisitive nature, a love of cricket and a colorful past? The one and only Tommy Akhtar, Ugandan-Indian-English private investigator, former Islamic guerrilla warrior and protagonist of Patrick Neate's new novel, City of Tiny Lights.
Neate, award-winning author of four previous books, has been praised for his witty and imaginative storytelling. Set in multiethnic West London, City of Tiny Lights is his ambitious, boisterous and somewhat disappointing experiment with the urban detective genre.
When the story begins Tommy is dealing with a brutal hangover and a mysterious visitor: a prostitute named Melody who wants him to find her missing "ho-buddy" Natasha. When the client with whom Natasha was last seen, a British MP, is found in a bloody, brain-splattered hotel room, Tommy finds himself looking for answers in all the wrong places, including a terrorist recruiting network. In a welcome departure from the archetypal hard-boiled narrative, Neate incorporates Tommy's immigrant family into the story-notably, the Akhtar patriarch Farzad, an "alcoholic/artist/shopkeeper/doctor" who spends most of his days dressed in an oversized Bob Marley T-shirt and boxers, drinking and obsessively painting, covering up, and repainting the face of his dead wife on the living room wall.
Tommy Akhtar, however, would probably argue that the most fascinating character we meet is himself. With his slangy speech and lungs scorched from "Bennies," Tommy is a bundle of Chandler-esque contradictions, a fusion of rugged masculinity and charming vulnerability who sprinkles his narrative with self-deprecating passages about what a "soft toff" he really is. As in Chandler's tales, the pursuit of truth the hero undertakes is partially about figuring out whodunit, and partially an excuse for our detective to explore what really concerns him: the cultural landscape(s) of which he's a privileged spectator.
Don't let the amber glimmer of Wild Turkey in Tommy's glass fool you into thinking this is a party. What begins as a madcap romp with "thug-lites" and hookers is also a novel about important issues. As Tommy traverses the immigrant hub and criminal underworld of contemporary London, he meditates on race relations, religious fundamentalism, immigration, the media, government and whatever other topics seem pressing in our postcolonial, post-9/11 geopolitical climate.
At times, this makes the book and the city it depicts seem like a Lego village patched together from recycled plots and erected around a series of talking points. Instead of alienating the reader, however, the synthetic quality is strangely intriguing. Though Tommy often compares sleuthing to cricket, "the gentleman's game," his tale instead resembles a less civilized sport: professional wrestling.
What does a detective novel set in cosmopolitan London have in common with a surreal, monstrous ballet of simian athletes in florescent underwear exchanging scripted insults while pretending to pummel each other? Neate uses generic conventions in a way that, despite the apparent laziness and cynicism of the book's choreographed violence and good-guy/bad-guy switcheroo, manages to seem eerily sincere at the same time. City of Tiny Lights, like Monday Night Raw, revels in its own artificiality while still trying desperately to convince us that the stage blood is real.
Whether Neate's novel ever achieves this desired sense of urgency is another question. In its serious moments City of Tiny Lights offers an overview of some important ideas about identity, nationality and urban life in an age of terrorism. But it ultimately lacks the attention span to sustain a meaningful engagement with any of them. One of Tommy's major epiphanies is that his government and the terrorists are on the same side because they both rely on public hysteria, an insight that smells suspiciously like the last stale cigarette in a pack of Michael Moore-flavored Ultra Lite 100s.
This is unfortunate because City of Tiny Lights is often fun to read, and reveals luminous flashes of potential. Why an otherwise imaginative writer such as Neate fails to harness that potential is a more baffling mystery than who brained Natasha's john.
- City of Tiny Lights revels in its own artificiality while still trying desperately to convince us that the stage blood is real.