In the Lost Realm of the Real

In the Lost Realm of the Real

Michael Dibdin’s detective Zen series sounds a melancholy note for an old Italy rife with political enemies.


For Aurelio Zen, the urbane detective creation of the English writer Michael Dibdin, a few fateful weeks in Rome in 1978 changed everything. At the time Zen was on a career fast track. He had a top post in the kidnapping section of the Rome Questura (police headquarters) with the prospect of further promotion to vice-questore (deputy chief), perhaps even to questore. But then a combination of factors–his curiosity and sense of justice and a glimpse of the "secret center" of the Italian state–destroyed it all.

When the Red Brigades kidnap former Italian prime minister and Christian Democratic Party kingpin Aldo Moro, He is thrown into the investigation under the direction of Rome’s Political Branch. Zen is incredulous to find that a department flush with government money "claimed to have no material on the terrorists beyond a few isolated descriptions and photographs." Zen and his colleague are reduced to conducting house-to-house searches, work that takes them to a part of Rome that’s too close for the comfort of their superiors. His partner dies mysteriously, and when Zen narrows in on what his partner had discovered, he is intercepted by "the Politicals" for whom he is supposedly working. He is told, with classic bureaucratic terseness, that his "request to be transferred to clerical duties at the Ministry of the Interior had been granted." Zen, of course, put in no such request.

Imagine Aurelio Zen as the Venetian cousin of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus or Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, someone resentful of the "shit for brains who carry the right party card" he has to flatter. Because he is morbidly haunted by the past, Zen is, by habit, a perpetual outsider wherever he ends up; even in his hometown, Venice, he tells a tourist, "I’m a stranger here myself." One can imagine the haunting organ score from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï accompanying Zen as he drifts across the boot of Italy, his gaze "dull and opaque, like the surface of water where the last traces of some violent shock lingers on."

When we come across Zen in the first of Michael Dibdin’s Zen novels, Ratking (1988), he is in limbo, a police commissioner attached to the Ministry of the Interior but permanently suspended from investigative duties, "nailed down, stuffed and varnished, with years of dreary routine to go before they would let him retire." His hangover from the anni di piombo–the so-called "years of lead," the era of escalating right- and left-wing violence in Italy–hasn’t quite passed. He is long separated from his wife (though divorce seems elusive), living with his mother and having an affair with an American divorcée. The nearest he gets to real police work is "smashing the great stolen-toilet-roll racket at the Questura in Campobasso." But in Ratking, thanks to his expertise in kidnapping and a boost from a back-room political fix, he is dusted off and temporarily reassigned to investigate the snatching of a well-connected industrialist in Perugia. By the end of the novel Zen has managed to climb his way back into favor: he is promoted to vice-questore and reinstated on the active roster of the Polizia Criminale (Criminalpol). Throughout the case, however, he senses that "he was no more than a pawn in whatever sophisticated games were being played." In Zen’s second adventure, Vendetta (1990), his superiors assign him to investigate a mass murder in Sardinia; in reality, they send him there to solve nothing, only to create the pretense of police interest in the case. What they really want is for him to make sure that a leading Christian Democratic player avoids the dragnet.

This pattern repeats itself a number of times in the series. Zen will find himself in a position of assumed authority and influence, only to learn that he’s a figurehead who is expected to conform to the wishes of his political bosses in Rome or turn a blind eye to whatever malfeasance has paralyzed the local Questura. Zen is reconciled to this imposture. But as cooperative as he is with his masters, and as keen as he is to work the system, his formidable skills as a gumshoe and his innate sense of justice always land him in trouble. Still, he manages to survive, thanks to his prowess and luck. At the end of Vendetta, in a grotesquely emblematic moment, Zen is summoned to the portal of true power in Italy, the Palazzo Sisti, the veritable Mount Olympus of the Christian Democratic Party. There, for services rendered, its chief member of Parliament (modeled undoubtedly on Giulio Andreotti, who enjoyed seven stints as Italy’s prime minister) says to him, euphemistically, "If there’s ever anything you need…." This, Zen muses, is "better than money in the bank!" At the time–the setting is the late 1980s–the Christian Democrats’ power seemed as eternal as the city in which it was quartered. But it was a bargain only as lasting as Christian Democracy’s hold on the summit of Italian society, which, as it turned out, was about to disintegrate.

When Dibdin started writing the Zen series, no one, let alone Dibdin, could have anticipated the seismic convulsions that would upend the Italian state; among the wreckage was the Christian Democratic Party, which dissolved in late 1993. The convulsions were triggered by the nationwide corruption investigations known as Mani pulite (Clean hands), which implicated almost all of Italy’s political class, including key Christian Democrats and their Socialist allies, but they were enabled too by the end of the cold war. Dibdin, not unlike Zen, seems to have been in the right place at the right time. His Zen series–eleven novels published between 1988 and 2007–covers a period when the politicians running the post-Christian Democratic Italian republic attempted to impose a consensus on Italian society, something the rulers of Italy have struggled and singularly failed to do since 1860, as historian John Foot has observed. Silvio Berlusconi, the head of Forza Italia, home of many former Christian Democrats, is the most vulgar and brash example of this new breed of politician–and there are more where he comes from, on the left and the right. They have attempted, quite successfully in some respects, to wipe from the historical databanks decades of civil war and political violence and to reconstruct Italy into a country like any other: a less politicized realm where a consumer culture rules. In its own way, Dibdin’s Zen series sounds a melancholy note for the old Italy that seems to be disappearing before Zen’s eyes. Dibdin seems to share a sentiment expressed by Peter Robb in the new postscript to his classic Midnight in Sicily (1996). After surveying the kidnappings, car bombings and political bosses that have scarred Italy, past and present, Robb writes, "In the brave new Italy of the two thousands, to look back at the Italy and Sicily of the second half of the twentieth century…arouses a kind of nostalgia…. Beside Silvio Berlusconi…Giulio Andreotti has acquired a patina of antique probity, deeply respectful of the laws of the church and republic, austerely dedicated to party and career, and very, very careful with words."

Zen stalks the new Italy like a phantom, seeking out and bonding with fellow phantoms, people not afflicted by the amnesia that has fallen over Italy. In the extraordinarily eerie Medusa (2003), Zen meets one of these fellow phantoms, a burned-out and reclusive leftist journalist who broods on the misteri d’Italia, that secret network of events that has tainted Italy’s recent history. The journalist says, "I can get by on my pension, more or less, so I’ve decided to devote my remaining years to writing a book." "What about?" Zen asks.

"A definitive account, explanation and analysis of all the misteri d’Italia."
 "A slim volume, then," commented Zen.
 "Virtually invisible."

The murders in the book are traced by Zen to a clandestine military organization named Medusa, created in the 1970s as a secret extralegal operation to combat the Italian far left. Medusa burrows into the occult history of the period, but it’s clear that no one really wants to know about the misteri d’Italia. "The truth," Zen’s friend tells him, "is that no one cares about all that stuff anymore." Zen comes across a local commune that reeks of "frustration, even despair, as unmistakable as mould." History is now what was on television last night; 1978 might as well be 1878. Even the novel’s villain–another of Zen’s fellow phantoms–pines for a former political opponent: "He was our sworn enemy thirty years ago, of course, like all the PCI crowd, but times have changed. When I see the shallow consumerist trash running around these days I almost begin to feel nostalgic for enemies like that."

A similar sense of nostalgia might be warranted for Michael Dibdin, who died suddenly last year after a short illness. He was 60. The British press devoted significant space to recapping Dibdin’s career. The Guardian took the unusual step–for the death of a mystery writer, at least–of lamenting Dibdin’s passing in a lead editorial, singling out the Zen series: "There can be little argument that Silvio Berlusconi has been the prime mover in compelling the modern generation of British middle-class visitors to view Italy and Italians in a less romantically indulgent light than many were previously inclined to do. But Aurelio Zen played a very important part too…. The melancholy detective created by the late Michael Dibdin lifted the curtain on a much more sinister Italy than the EM Forster version that had inspired generations of starry-eyed visitors from the north."

Dibdin, by most accounts, lived as peripatetic an existence as his creation Zen. His journeying included a childhood in Ulster; education in Sussex, England, and Alberta, Canada; a stint teaching at the University of Perugia (which must have initiated him into the vagaries of Italian bureaucracy); and then, these last dozen years, a life in Seattle.

I remember seeing him skulking around Oxford in the early 1990s. One evening, in a pub, some friends and I were discussing Dibdin’s latest novel, the merciless, wickedly funny Dirty Tricks, about sleazy English language-instruction schools in Oxford (Dibdin wrote seven non-Zen crime novels, of which Dirty Tricks was the finest). Somehow we all seemed to recognize ourselves in the novel, to the extent that each of us recounted a scene that we insisted Dibdin must have based on us. This fantasizing reached a lurid pitch when one of us claimed to have been the inspiration for a sex scene involving a couch. It was at this moment that I turned to see Dibdin sitting beside us. His face resembled the visage he had given to Zen: "expressionless as the frescoed image of some minor saint who was being martyred in some unspeakable way but, thanks to his steadfast faith, remained at peace with himself."

In the United States, the quality of Dibdin’s novels has long been celebrated in the ghetto of the crime fiction round-up pages of our newspapers. In a short review in the Wall Street Journal of Dibdin’s last novel, End Games (2007), you can almost hear the reviewer weep for lack of space as he quickly catalogs canonical authors to define Dibdin’s prowess: "[Dibdin] evokes not so much the terse action scenes of hardboiled masters as the word-drunk prose of such language-besotted authors as Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov and Lawrence Durrell…. The next time you hear a snob speak condescendingly of the detective story, tell them to go take a hike–or to read a Dibdin novel."

Dibdin could never have been mistaken for a literary novelist slumming in the genre. He was an extremely cultured, extremely serious crime novelist. His novels resembled the "hard novels" of Georges Simenon and the dark, subtle paranoias of Leonardo Sciascia’s crime stories, but they also crackle with the fun, puzzles and escapism of Conan Doyle. In Back to Bologna (2005) and Cosi Fan Tutti (1996), the humor is so riotous and operatic that one almost misses the melancholy beauty and atmosphere of novels like Dead Lagoon (1994), whose portrayal of Venice merits comparison with Jan Morris.

End Games is Southern gothic, Italian style. It opens with what appears to be a form of ritualistic murder. A man dressed "like a corpse" visits a church in the local countryside, then visits the ruins of an old stately home, where he seems to bless himself–after which his head is blown off by a remote-controlled device. "Calabria," as one character observes, "can be harsh to her sons." Zen has been temporarily transferred to the region to cover for the police chief of Cosenza, who is recovering from a wound to his foot that he suffered while cleaning his pistol. Zen, of course, is a mere figurehead. His new colleagues tell him that he has no need to concern himself with the day-to-day workings of police headquarters. Zen is happy to oblige them; he is left alone to grumble about the proliferation of tomatoes in the local diet and the volatile local weather.

Zen’s grumblings acquire a different flavor when Peter Newman, an American lawyer scouting locations for a film company, is kidnapped. The missing lawyer, it turns out, is actually a Calabrian, the scion of a much-hated feudal family that had ruled the local area as its fief until the end of World War II. When Newman’s headless corpse is discovered, Zen, an old hand when it comes to kidnappings, is confounded. Why, he wonders, would a kidnap gang "destroy a potentially very profitable piece of merchandise without even putting it on the market?" Zen’s process of discovery involves, in some respect, the recovery of his vocation. It also returns him to the parallel world of Italy’s secret state that he first encountered in 1978. But his sleuthing takes him further into the past, to the repressive old southern latifondo system of estate farming, the Fascist era and its immediate aftermath. With its legacies of ghastly aristocratic violence, old ruins and a changeling, End Games is partly a gothic revenge drama, where memories, certainly in this part of Calabria, can linger like unexploded ordnance. Zen senses that to live in Calabria is to inhabit several eras simultaneously. The trashy world of Italia-lite that seems to have drained Italy of its substance has stopped at Cosenza: "For every ten kilometres you travelled between Rome and Cosenza, you moved back another year into the past, finally arriving in the mid-1950s. Authenticity was not as yet under serious threat here, and in some way that he couldn’t have explained, that slewed the ethical equations too. What would have been good enough elsewhere simply wouldn’t do here, back in the lost realm of the real."

But in "the lost realm of the real comes violence, clan ritual and death." "Life is an acquired taste, Signor Zen, but death has mass-market appeal," a former spook tells him. Dibdin’s rendering of the terrible violence and tristesse of the region, the "sense of generalised and ineradicable sadness about the place, despite its natural beauty," is beguiling, the trait that makes his mysteries so distinctive. Dibdin has always been at his most pungent when writing about the Mezzogiorno. In Blood Rain (1999), he evoked the bleak interior towns, dead villages and holy terrors of Sicily with a sulfuric intensity that rivals Sciascia’s in The Day of the Owl and To Each His Own. He also captured the sense of generalized apathy and the tragic fate of those who choose action over resignation. While End Games never has the same tragic pitch as Blood Rain, it reminds you what a fine and rare vintage Dibdin is. End Games is marred only by a slightly irritating subplot involving a scam by Peter Newman’s former colleagues, which involves looting Cosenza of the mythical treasures of King Alaric. This reads like a cut-and-paste from a Donald Westlake caper like The Hot Rock or Kahawa.

It’s strange to read Dibdin’s last novel with a sense of nostalgia, but the realization that we will see neither Dibdin nor Zen again shadows one’s expectations of End Games. One winces as the novel closes with Zen sitting in one of those soullessly elongated regional train stations that dot Italy, waiting for the train, to return to Rome. One struggles to stifle the sadistic wish that Dibdin had been clairvoyant enough about his own passing to kill off Zen in End Games. (In Blood Rain he sort of does that, but, as with Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, he brings Zen back in And Then You Die.) One of the most memorable scenes in the novel is when a sleazy, disbarred lawyer–the fixer who arranged for Newman’s kidnapping–reminds Zen that in Calabria life is lived in the subjunctive. Likewise, it is our fate to wonder what might have been and to approach End Games in the subjunctive mood.

More than a decade ago, Dibdin edited The Vintage Book of Classic Crime (originally published as The Picador Book of Crime Writing in Britain), a robust, wide-ranging but eclectic anthology of mostly Anglo-American crime writing. Each section of the book featured a short, erudite essay by Dibdin about an aspect of the genre. These little essays not only explored the varietals; they illuminated Dibdin’s experience as a practitioner. Suggestively, he argued that the best crime writing is "eccentric–the product of a creative struggle against the overwhelmingly centripetal force of the genre." He could have been describing his own work, of course: short, terse, sometimes rather compressed novels that rarely ran more than 250 pages. But within these parameters, Dibdin was a playful novelist who gave the impression that he didn’t want to get bored or locked down by the genre. His crime stories blended the straightforward and counterintuitive, variations on noir, giallo, revenge tragedy, conspiracy thriller–though never, interestingly enough, descending into the abyss of Borgesian paranoia that energized Sciascia’s One Way or Another and Equal Danger. But the peculiar qualities that Dibdin observed about the Swedish husband-and-wife crime-writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö summarize the brooding beauty of his own work: the duo "transcends the level of the average police procedural thanks to a prevailing sense of unease which in the end seems as much existential as ideological."

The odd thing about The Vintage Book of Classic Crime is that only two Italian writers are included, neither of whom is Leonardo Sciascia. Neither is an example of crime fiction either; rather, they are examples of genre criticism by Umberto Eco ("The basic question of philosophy…is the same as that of the detective novel: who is guilty?") and Antonio Gramsci (a few gemlike paragraphs from the Prison Notebooks where he favors Chesterton over Conan Doyle for his intuitive rather than rationalist approach to detection). Sciascia is an obvious influence on Dibdin’s work–especially Cabal (1992), for which Sciascia provides the epigraph–and the absence of him and Carlo Emilio Gadda, author of the classic That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, is a paradox. (Some of Sciascia’s and Gadda’s novels are available in new editions from New York Review Books.) The anthology was published at a time when, according to one observer, Alan Taylor in Scotland on Sunday, "it feels as if there are more expatriate thriller writers in Italy than there are Italian ice-cream parlours in Britain. Italians–with the honourable exception of the Sicilian Leonardo Sciascia–generally don’t write whodunnits, leaving them to the likes of Magdalen Nabb, Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin."

Coincidentally, since the publication of Dibdin’s anthology, a number of Italian crime novelists have come to the fore, thanks in part to a steady trickle of translation from small presses like Bitter Lemon and Europa. In fact, the blurb on an excellent recent anthology, Crimini, boasts that Italian crime fiction is enjoying a renaissance, "replacing that of Scandinavia as the fastest growing in the genre." Probably the most palatable to the middlebrow palate are the Sicilian novelist Andrea Camilleri’s genial Inspector Montalbano novels, but the most striking offer tough, more cynical fare: writers like Niccolò Ammaniti, Gianrico Carofiglio, Massimo Carlotto and Giuseppe Genna, whose novels (Carlotto’s and Genna’s, particularly) percolate with a dark, sleazy energy and growl with the lament of a Paolo Conte song and lost political dreams. Genna’s In the Name of Ishmael is probably the most paranoid conspiracy thriller to see print; its featured psycho killer is a former US Secretary of State familiar to readers of this magazine.

If there’s one writer who ratifies Dibdin’s dark, ironic but oddly nostalgic vision, it is Carlo Lucarelli. Lucarelli, a well-known TV personality in Italy, hosts a late-night show devoted to unsolved mysteries, whose subjects range from the mysterious death of the Italian industrialist Enrico Mattei to the murder of Pier Paulo Pasolini. Lucarelli came to attention in Italy in 1990 with Carte Blanche, the first of a brilliant trilogy of very short novels set in a period stretching from the collapse of Mussolini’s Salo Republic, a puppet regime of the Nazis that ruled Northern Italy from 1943 to 1945, to the earlier years of the postwar Italian Republic. They feature Commissario De Luca, a weary detective and former member of Mussolini’s political police who, as Carte Blanche begins, has transferred back to the ordinary force just as he realizes that the Salo Republic is about to collapse. Wracked by bad conscience and a lack of sleep, he tries to claw back his professional pride as an ordinary homicide detective. Unfortunately, the first homicide he has to investigate involves a victim with strong connections to the Fascist elite. For a novel of such slender size (a mere 120 pages), Carte Blanche is a richly atmospheric policier that, reeking of the decay and political squalor of the late Mussolini period, recalls Bertolucci’s Il Conformista and Hammett’s Red Harvest.

The nasty atmospherics continue in The Damned Season, a claustrophobic and nervy thriller set in the month after Italy’s liberation from fascism. De Luca is posing as an engineer in the countryside between Bologna and Rome, fearful that he is on a partisan hit list. After inadvertently divulging his identity, he is blackmailed into heading a homicide investigation–one that finds him ensnared in the rivalries of competing partisan factions. The trilogy’s final novel, Villa Delle Oche, is set during the days leading up to the contentious first election after the liberation, in April 1948, where De Luca is working for the Bologna vice squad. Still sleepless, he is also guilt-ridden by former associations and has developed a nervous tic of chewing the inside of his cheek while on the trail of a murderer who seems to have dispatched several lowlifes who have Communist sympathies. It is a bitter, ironic novel that closes an era when everything seemed politically possible in Italy, and whose nippy pace is enlivened by the use of hysterical contemporary newspaper headlines and political slogans, including this priceless one: "If the Christian Democrats win all of Italy will be a seminary: No more Charlie Chaplin, Totò, or Rita Hayworth. You’ll die of boredom."

There’s a slightly demented, baroque quality to Lucarelli’s novels reminiscent of Italian horror director Dario Argento. Any writer of Lucarelli’s generation cannot approach the crime thriller without wrestling with the achievement of the cinematic master of the Italian giallo. The two other novels of Lucarelli’s that have been translated into English, Almost Blue and Day After Day, have a similar staccato-like pulse that bares the imprint of Argento’s Deep Red. Their protagonist, a sultry young Southerner, Inspector Grazia Negro, is as finely realized a character as Aurelio Zen, a cop who has the dual burden of hunting serial killers and professional killers and combating her boorish male colleagues. Of the two novels, Almost Blue is the superior, a sublime, sinewy work that is icy, elegant and swathed in darkness. It is dominated by two obsessive narrators: one, a serial killer filled with self-loathing; the other, a blind recluse named Simone who spends insomniac nights listening to the police radio and following the movement of Inspector Negro. Simone can never see Bologna, but his imagined city–woven from the lonely nights listening to police radio–sparkles like a magic lantern. His voice is eerie, elegiac and mostly what makes Almost Blue such a memorable novel. Colors have a different meaning for him. "For me, a pretty girl might have blonde hair, but a truly beautiful girl would be barefoot, brave and have blue hair."

It’s as if Negro, De Luca and Zen are neighbors whose homes are haunted by the same ghosts–phantoms that Lucarelli and Dibdin want to bring back to life. It’s a lonely and bitter task, especially in light of what Geoff Andrews has called "Italy’s hour of darkness": Berlusconi’s "third coming" and the radical left’s liquidation in Italy’s recent elections. "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change," Tancredi tells his uncle in Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Dibdin’s and Lucarelli’s stories about the misteri d’Italia are poignant and distressing confirmations of those dark words.

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