Tommy Akhtar

Created by Patrick Neate (1970 --)

"You can learn everything you need to know about life from the game of cricket."

-- from "The Little Book of Tommy"

Southwest London is the stomping ground of disillusioned, low-key private eye and self-proclaimed "piss artist" TOMMY AKHTAR, a Ugandan-Indian-English ("paki" for short, according to Tommy) ex-Muslim who spent time fighting the Russians alongside the Mujahideen in Afghanistan back in the eighties. He's partial to Benson & Hedges smokes and Wild Turkey bourbon, and he shares a passion for cricket with his widowed, alcoholic father, Farzad, who's still grieving the death of his wife (Tommy's mother).

His first (and so far only apprearance) was in City of Tiny Lights (2005), in which Tommy, who generally prefers to keep his head down, narrates with raw cheekiness and a torrent of slang how he was hired by a Russian prostitute to find her missing co-worker, but soon finds himself caught up in the official investigation of a murdered MP and other assorted distractions, including a possible terrorist cell, assorted politicians, suicide bombers, drug dealers and a real estate scam in which they may all be involved.

But the meandering plot is not the best thing about this amazing novel -- it's the gritty, street-level view of a multi-ethnic, multicultural London in all its shapeshifting glory and infamy, awash in contradictions, clash and conflict, and the very real lives of its citizens, be they Russian hookers, African drug dealers or white-than-white politicians. Neate doesn't shy away from any of it, but burrows deep deep down, to the point where it soon becomes clear that it's not just Tommy's beloved dad who suffers from "the postcolonial confusion of your average London immigrant."

In fact, the sweet-and-sour relationship between father and son is one of the richest and most nuanced in crime fiction, right up there with that of Jim Rockford and his father. The surprisingly heartfelt conclusion caught me unaware, but I'm glad it did.

Unfortunately, the book was released just around the time of the July 2005 bombings in London. Which may explain why, despite the tongue-in-cheek boast by the author that it was just "Another Tommy Akhtar Investigation," no official sequel has ever been published.

Unless, that is, you count "The Little Book of Tommy", a short piece published three years later in Multi-Ethnic Britain 2000+, a pricey academic work from 2008 edited by Lars Eckst and featuring contributions from a wide assortment of scholars, writers and other suspicious types offering "New Perspectives in Literature, Film and the Arts." I'm guessing very few people have read it or have even heard about it, which is a shame, because it contains a great liitle vignette (I hesitate to call it a story) by Neate that offers us another slice of Tommy being Tommy, relating the story of a neighbourhood stabbing while dishing out various little "pearls" of wisdom, such as "tell the truth whenever necessary," "lie whenever necessary" and "even fools are right sometimes."

And then, in 2017, Tommy was brought to the big screen in an adaptation of City of Tiny Lights, directed by Pete Travis, with the sceenplay written by the author himself and starring Riz Ahmed as Tommy; an inspired choice. Ahmed nails the role, and his watchability makes the still-confusing plot a lot easier to take -- it's hard to take your eyes off him. He needs some sleep, he needs a shave -- but instead it's another smoke, another drink, and oh yes, some thugs want to kick the crap out of him. Also helping immensely is director of photograpy Felix Wiedemann's swirling, gritty impressionistic take on London in all its noirish glory.

The author, Patrick Neate, is a hip-hop loving British novelist, journalist, poet, screenwriter and podcaster, whose works typically explore different cultural identities from often deep within, and how the stories we tell help shape those identities. His books include Musungu Jim, Twelve Bar Blues, London Pigeon Wars, Where You're At, Culture is Our Weapon and Jerusalem. His first (and so far only) foray into crime fiction was City of Tiny Lights, but I keep hoping he'll return. Tommy's too fascinating and complex a character to let go.

UNDER OATH

  • "The denouement of this first Tommy Akhtar book - surely there are more to come - brings together angry young man, tube train and special rucksack in a way that was terrifying to read even before July 7. Now that Neate's imagined event has come to pass, his prophetic thriller offers a glimpse behind the headlines in to the mind of a home-grown terrorist intent on snuffing out some of the tiny lights that make up our capital. This timely book does not say "I told you so", but rather "I told you why."

-- Melissa Katsoulis, The Telegraph, on the novel

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES

FILMS

  • CITY OF TINY LIGHTS
    (2017, BBC Films)
    110 minutes
    Tagline: "Some secrets should remain buried."
    Based on the novel by Patrick Neate
    Screenplay by Patrick Neate
    Directed by Pete Travis
    Director of photography: Felix Wiedemann
    Starring Riz Ahmed as TOMMY AKHTAR
    Also starring Billie Piper, James Floyd, Cush Jumbo, Roshan Seth, Hannah Rae, Antonio Aakeel

Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.


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