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.