If you sat down for a pint with Patrick Neate you'd be in for a lively evening. From the Whitbread-winning Twelve Bar Blues (2001) to The London Pigeon Wars (2003), his books have a sparky loquacity that is often funny and inventive. Neate's strength is his anecdotal style and his ear for the rhythms of London patois (he runs Book Slam, a hip monthly literary club night in west London), but he runs into difficulties when he hankers after more substantial effects. This is the problem with City of Tiny Lights, which describes itself as an investigation into "what it really means to be British right now".
Tommy Akhtar is an "English-Ugandan-Indian" cricket fanatic and private investigator operating out of a cramped flat in Chiswick. He spends his time sparking up "Bennies" and necking gallons of cheap whisky to anaesthetise himself from memories of his mother's premature death and his time taking pot-shots at Soviet troops with the mujahedin in Afghanistan. One morning, he wakes in his filthy bedroom to another episode in the "cartoon story" that is his life. In walks a black woman called Melody with a tremendously pneumatic chest. Tommy looks her up and down, decides that she's a hooker, and listens to her story.
Melody spotted Tommy in Yellow Pages. She wants him to find her flatmate, a scrawny Russian escort with a coke habit. Natasha - Tommy says you can check out her "upholstery" at www.sexyrussian.co.uk: I've tried; you can't - disappeared after she went on a date with an MP whose brains were bashed in later that evening. Tommy decides to take the case, and quickly tracks the Russki down, but the plot thickens when he realises that Melody hasn't been straight with him. Despite being warned off and suffering a severe beating, Tommy remains intent on getting to the bottom of the MP's death. As the narrative accelerates, Neate introduces us to a megalomaniac Saudi called Azmat al-Dubayan, who is plotting a spate of suicide bomb attacks across London.
The novelist John Banville recently wrote: "If we all have a novel in us, nowadays it is likely to be a September 11 novel." City of Tiny Lights confirms this proposition, at least tangentially. So what's wrong with that? Nothing, really, except that Neate doesn't excel at state-of-the-nation showboating. The novel is full of plodding passages of the "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" variety. Every time Neate gets political, you want to tell him to stick to the street life.
There are other problems, too. Neate likes to concoct a distinctive voice. In this case, he wants to sound like an English version of Raymond Chandler. Tommy is "the latest in a long line of Marlowe wannabes", a hard-boiled private dick who hangs out with sleazy lowlife and busty hustlers (Neate calls this genre "Chiswick noir"). But there is an irony here. This spokesman for multicultural Britain may spout rhyming slang and chat about geezers and gaffs, but the DNA of his character is constructed from second-hand, faux-American idioms.
This only adds to the garbled nature of Tommy's voice.
Why does he refer to Melody's "ho-buddy" if he's scornful of gangsta rap? Would a character who happily talks about his "barnet" and his "bonce" slip so easily into discussions of "politically correct argot" and the transformation of London's suburbs into "perfect globules of homogeny"? There is something contrived and inconsistent about Tommy's quirkiness, with the result that City of Tiny Lights is nothing more than a diverting thriller. It is exactly the kind of shaggy-dog story, in fact, to keep you entertained in the pub.