Zen and the art of Michael Dibdin (why I’m a serial reader)

dibdin “I’m a stranger here myself.”

Odd this should be the last thing I hear from Aurelio Zen. I’ve just read Zen’s parting shot in Dead Lagoon, the Michael Dibdin mystery novel I’ve saved unread for several months. Didbin wrote eleven novels featuring Zen, the solitary, dark-hearted Italian police inspector. The first, Ratking, was published in 1988, when Zen is almost fifty and nearly washed-up as an investigator, and the last, End Games, was published in 2007, a few months after Dibdin’s death. Born in England in 1947, Dibdin taught in Italy for several years before beginning the Zen series. He died in Seattle in March 2007, having lived there many years with his wife, Katherine Beck, also a mystery novelist.

I became intrigued with Didbin after reading his short non-Zen novel, Thanksgiving, a disturbing, creepy Sam Shepard-like American tale set in the Nevada desert. The first Zen book I read was And Then You Die (2002), which picks up the inspector’s story as he recovers from an assassination attempt. I quickly moved through the somewhat grisly Medusa (2003), about caves and fascism; Back to Bologna (2005), a sly tale of soccer, bungled murder and an off-kilter semiotics professor out to get a popular TV cook; and finally End Games (2007), published posthumously, a strange, comically cynical end-of-world tale about the attempt to make a Mel Gibson-inspired movie about the Book of Revelations.

I was hooked. I returned to Zen’s first appearance in Ratking, then read Vendetta (1990), Cabal (1992), featuring a murder in the Vatican, Cosi Fan Tutti (1996), a sprightly, almost-romantic comedy, A Long Finish (1998), full of sun, wine, truffles and bizarrely twisted subplots, and Blood Rain (1999), which ends where I began, with Zen’s apparent assassination.

I read ten of the novels in a few weeks, skipping the fourth, Dead Lagoon (1994), because in it Zen returns to Venice, his childhood home. We know we can go home, but nothing good ever comes of it, and I just didn’t have the heart. And then having finished the others – a quick finish – I kept putting off reading this last one, saving it for the day nothing else would do.

Each novel in the Zen series is set in a different region of Italy, with a lot of local color and what I assume is an accurate portrayal of the political and social life of Italy through the turn of the century. Zen is in the Interior Ministry, part of a national police agency, and his assignments to regional investigations stirs resentment among local authorities. This is a necessary series feature, of course, providing a new part of Italy for Dibdin to showcase, and keeping Zen the perpetual outsider.

Each novel is fairly self-contained, primarily because Zen is insular,
holding himself – but little else – close. And Dibdin was able to resist formula, varying style, tone and point of view with each novel, weaving in and around Zen’s own perspective, so each is fresh and distinctive. I was fortunate, I think, to have started with And Then You Die, a low point in Zen’s life and career, but providing just the late middle-aged, muddle-aged and rueful look at things I was looking for at the time. But I can make a case for beginning with almost any one of them. A Long Finish will delight wine and vineyard enthusiasts. Back to Bologna has a blunt edge and hammering prose that reminds me of the best of Elmore Leonard. Cosi Fan Tutti is the most delightful and light-hearted of the tales, with a lively, swift-moving Shakespearean confusion of enter-stage-rights, mistaken identities and missed opportunities. Or, begin at the beginning, with Ratking.

But Zen novels are not just escapist entertainment for me. Zen and his creator are under my skin. Finally I felt in the mood for Dead Lagoons. It did not disappoint. There’s the bristling physicality of Dibdin’s language, describing, for example, “a mild, scholarly-looking man with Armani glasses and a skimpy blond beard like grass which has been growing under a plank.” There’s the underlying corruption in both the political establishment and the law enforcement bureaucracy, a negative portrait of Italian life that runs through all the novels, making one wonder that Dibdin’s stories could be as popular in Italy as they evidently are.

And I was right about the going home thing. Zen uncovers a past better left buried in the funeral, effluvia-laden canals of his old Venice neighborhood. If you secretly love the Pacific Northwest sensibility, and the weather it brings, as if by sympathetic magic, you’ll like Zen’s incarnation here, as the sodden sky presses down on Venice and the thick lagoon upwells. 

Dibden wrote several other non-Zen novels. Perhaps I’ll try them. And I’ll revisit a few of Zen’s stories. But I’ll miss the first-read view of Aurelio Zen in a new shade. I like the way he lingers there, in the shade, not reluctant, but never eager, either. Women see him as “this strange, moody individual who could be so passionately there one moment, so transparently distant the next, who seemed to float through life as if he had nothing to hope or fear from it.” One shrewd adversary tells him, “You appear to be intelligent, devious and effective, compromised only by a tendency to insist on a conventional conception of morality at certain crucial moments – a weakness which, I regret to say, has hampered your career.” Not that Zen doesn’t cut corners. He does. Sometimes to solve a crime. At other times for his own advantage. But something usually goes wrong – on the job and in his life – leaving him morally compromised and vulnerable. In Zen’s world the bad are really bad and the good only a little better.

Zen has an intuitive investigative temperament he brings to both his job and life in general, which means he asks too many questions, and eventually alienates family, friends, colleagues and lovers. This, too, is a necessary feature of series novels, leaving him free to begin again in the next book. But in Zen’s case it shrewdly fits his character. That’s what holds up story after story: Zen’s indefatigable character, the cynical core that winces but never gives an inch, with no way out except to shrug shoulders and move on.

In photos, Dibdin looks congenial enough,
but I imagine he had an impenetrable core, too, a quiet resistance to the world that he duplicated in his portrait of Zen. Dibdin said he thought of Zen as a friend, but one he didn’t know very well. Readers are lucky that he never figured the fellow out, that Zen remained a stranger to the end.


Serially, in order of Zen’s appearance: Ratking (1988) Vendetta (1990) Cabal (1992) Dead Lagoon (1994) Cosi Fan Tutti (1996) A Long Finish (1998) Blood Rain (1999) And Then You Die (2002) Medusa (2003) Back to Bologna (2005) End Games (2007).