Patrick Neate

Tommy Akhtar - Ugandan-Indian-English private investigator in London

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"City of Tiny Lights"

(reviewed by Tony Ross AUG 26, 2006)

City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate

Neate's lastest novel is an engaging take on the hard-boiled detective genre, albeit one that perhaps somewhat overextends itself just a bit too much to be considered a total knockout of a book. Set in contemporary London (with a minor excursion to the Lymington seaside), the book revolves around Tommy Akhtar. Now in his mid to late 30s, Tommy was born in Uganda to Indian parents who immigrated to England when Idi Amin came to power. But don't let his colorful background fool you (in his youth he fell in with some people at the local mosque and ended up killing Soviets in Afghanistan), he's a classic Chandleresque private eye. Alcoholic? Check. Chain-smoker? Check. Smart aleck? Check. Cynic? Check. Good-hearted? Check. Got a "friend" on the police force? Check. Poor family life? Check. Pursues interesting case even though he's finished what he was paid to do? Check.

It all kicks off when a hooker hires Tommy to track down her missing flatmate/partner, who apparently owes her money. By the time the book is over, this simple case will have spiraled out of control into a very complex situation involving the murder of a Minister of Parliament, a mysterious Russian, an alleged terrorist group, and a cadre of MI5 and CIA agents. Interwoven with this is background on Tommy's life and his relationship with his dodgy brother and whacked out artist father. When the story follows Tommy down the mean streets, doing his work, tracking down the missing girl, sneaking into hotel rooms, and bantering with the supporting characters, the book works very very well. Neate brilliantly catches the patter and rhythm of dialogue, from Tommy's father's stern scolding to the local Pakistani teenage rude boy's patois. Where the book is somewhat less successful is the convoluted plotting, especially once the intelligence agencies are brought into the thick of things and it all gets rather conspiracy-theoryish.

There's a lot to like in the book as Neate takes the reader along for a very colorful and often funny ride. One aspect that's very welcome is that Tommy is a private eye who takes a lickin' and comes away quite wobbly. It's a rare case of the detective getting roughed up and there being real consequences. Some American readers may have trouble deciphering some of the book's pervasive Brit-slang and there are running references to cricket tactics, lore, and legends which will elude those not familiar with the sport. These minor quibbles aside, it's a pretty entertaining read that's unlike almost anything else out there in the crime genre. I'll definitely be going back to check out Neate's previous books.

Note: The cover of the U.S. paperback edition has an awesome playful cover illustration of London by design outfit "Eboy,"whose work (including similar pixel panoramas of Berlin and Venice) is easily found online.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews

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About the Author:

Patrick NeatePatrick Neate, born and raised in South London and is a journalist, performance poet and deejay.

In 2001, he won England's Whitbread Award for his novel Twelve Bar Blues, as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Royal Society Literature Award, Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Younger Writer of the Year. He has published articles in many leading magazines including The Face, Mixmag and Time Out. Where You're At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip Hop Planet won the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award.

He lived in Zambia for a couple of years before settling in West London. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014