Published
Quarterly by
Lifeloom.com
ISSN: 1547-9609

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott

Spring 2004
Volume I
issue 4

 

 

W M M New Issue W M M Archives

 

Antonia Moras is a writer with the University of Alaska Anchorage and the editor of the Alaska Justice Forum, a quarterly journal addressing justice issues pertinent to Alaska. As part of her university work, she also writes and produces educational documentaries. A constant traveler, Ms. Moras also occasionally writes travel articles; she is at work on a mystery story set in Italy. She is married, with two children.

Direct correspondence to editor@lifeloom.com.


Michael Dibden's Aurelio Zen

             The discovery of a body in a mountain cave high in the Alto Adige region of northern Italy precipitates Aurelio Zen into the action of his most recent assignment. At the direction of his superior in Rome, the police inspector undertakes the investigation of a death that occurred thirty years ago. As usual, facts surrounding the death seem interwoven with Italyís complex political history with its superficially uneasy balance between right and left. What is the connection between the corpse, an elderly widow in Verona, a military intelligence officer, and a bookseller in Milan? And who or what was Medusa? Zen sets off, riding trains back and forth across the northern half of the country, from the Adige to Campione díItalia, a fold of Italy within Switzerland, to the Po valley and back to Tuscany, where he has been living quietly in the town of Lucca. In Medusa we find Zen in a rare state of calm. He is still working only intermittently, semi-undercover as a result of the events recounted in the earlier Blood Rain, but in his personal life he has achieved a domestic quiet. Together he and Gemma enjoy a routine which begins each morning with Zen walking to the local bakery to buy her favorite pastries for breakfast. The corpse in the cave pulls him away from these gentle mornings.

Medusa Michael Dibdinís Aurelio Zen novels offer many of the delights expected from a sustained series of mystery novels: the challenge of puzzles, piquancy of action, familiar characters, a certain atmosphere in a certain place. In this series the setting is Italy, and the lead character is an Italian police investigator whose career is based less on ratiocination than on more or less morally acceptable improvisation. Blood Rain

             There are several other good English language mystery series set in Italy — the Marshal Guarnaccia series by Magdalen Nabb; Donna Leonís Inspector Brunetti series, and the art history series by Iain Pears. There are also Andrea Camillieriís Inspector Montalbano mysteries, set in Sicily, which are gradually being translated into English. Dibdinís Zen novels are more complex stories than any of these others. The author attempts more within the framework of the mystery-police procedural. The plots are usually very complicated; they range widely and usually involve more than one narrative line. Each novel is dense with characters. Thereís plenty of physical action, with the chases, fights, and killings all the inevitable fruit of duplicity.

             For years, Zen has turned and twisted in middle age, lonely and fearful that his work will fail him. In the first novel of the series, Ratking, he is recalled from an obscure position within the police ministry to investigate a kidnapping in Perugia. For some years he has been constrained to desk work because of his involvement in the investigation of the Aldo Moro kidnapping. Dibdin weaves details of his fictional policemanís background with facts from the actual Moro case, which ended with the murder of the former prime minister. There are hints that Zen discovered the underlying realities of the Moro kidnapping, making him too dangerous to certain politicians and administrators.

             His success with the Perugia case in Ratking pleases a well-placed politician and Zen moves back into investigative work.

             The conspiratorial tangles of Italian politics — the rumors, the games, the mirages, the corruption, the misteri díItalia — are always part of the background to Zenís cases, but he himself is not a political player. He is a stranger in his own bureaucracy, in which he has survived almost in spite of himself. Dibdin is very good at catching the tone of bureaucratic languor — the petty gossip, the rivalries, the thwarted creativity. Zen is detached, ironic, carrying a certain ingrained sadness — still the boy who lost his father during World War II. Many of his police successes are flawed and temporary. Events happen around him and he responds as best he can. Heís not fashionable or trendy. He isnít even always very clever.

             In the earliest novels, Aurelio shares his Rome apartment with his elderly mother, who has moved there from Venice and filled the rooms with heavy old furniture. When we first glimpse her, in Ratking, Signora Zen is spending her days closeted in the apartment, her mind softening with television and inactivity. She misses Venice and rejects life in Rome. Although he tugs and frets to escape her hovering, the bond between mother and son is still strong, and Zen is always in conflict between his responsibility for her and his desire to live a free, independent adult existence. He remembers how she had raised him alone, doing housework to supplement her small widowís pension, ďtirelessly and ingeniously hollowing out and shoring up a space for her son to grow up in.Ē

             Beyond his mother, Zenís only long-standing tie in Rome has been Gilberto Nieddu, a former policeman now running an industrial security — espionage business. Gilberto, who is Sardinian in origin, is slippery, quick to spot an advantage, and somewhat mocking of Zenís plodding path in the police ministry, but heís also a family man, who pulled Signora Zen and her son into the warm circle created with his wife and children. Niedduís affection for Zen is real — brotherly in its humor and exasperation — and, from case to case, Zen depends upon Niedduís rather shady assistance, without ever acknowledging it to himself. In Medusa, Nieddu once more provides a faintly illegal assist, through his contacts with the world of the Kurdish clandestini — illegal immigrants.

             Zenís romantic relationships have been as complicated as his cases. Although he and his wife were separated, they remained legally married for many years. (We glimpse his wife only once, fleetingly, at the conclusion of Cosi Fan Tutti.) For Aurelio this situation was more or less acceptable because it helped him slip out of relationships, yet he seems an expectant, hopeful lover and not at all exploitative. His romances trail off, but the women never totally disappear from his life; stray tendrils from their worlds are still tangled in his. Gemma, a glamorous, well-off divorcee with her own history, has had a longer run than most of the women because she is not particularly possessive.

             All of this is very Italian.

             As we trail the weary Zen through his cases, we also explore the Italy from which his problems arise. The plots pull at threads in the intricate texture of Italian life — politics, history, the Church, the media, the Mafia, viniculture, fashion. Here are the foods, the wines, the trades and crafts, the dialects, the long, long history, the flow of creativity and the surprisingly deep provinciality. In Medusa we are exposed to the sullen, politically-troubled atmosphere of the German-speaking Adige, which was ceded to Italy in the aftermath of World War I, and to the farmland of the Po valley, where Zen notes the beauty of an abandoned cascina -- farm building: "ĎThey did ugly things in those days too,' Zen thought, 'but they didnít make ugly things. They just didnít know how.'Ē

             The sense of place is always keen, with Zen always certain that he is an outsider — except in Venice. In Dead Lagoon, he returns to his native city, where he slips easily into the local dialect and into an affair with a childhood acquaintance. Dibdin evokes the otherness of the city, a place unto itself, with ways of working and thinking that have arisen from being surrounded by water. Zenís deep knowledge of Venice and its waters and byways permits him to tease out the facts behind the disappearance of a wealthy American and also assist the elderly contessa who had once employed his mother as a housecleaner. But in Venice too he manages to hurt himself.

             Dibdin is a supple writer, masterful at conveying levels and shades of irony in a society in which everyone is always on stage and everyone is aware of the human bent toward duplicity.

             Zen himself, whose take on his world is emphatically ironic, resorts to the occasional lie or subterfuge to adjust his situation — with the usual result of complicating things. His cases are rarely tidied up. Some he solves openly; others end in the complexities of bureaucratic deceit. The arrangements and alliances he makes in one story curl vine-like into his future.

             The detective intuitively understands that if he just keeps going a pattern will emerge and events become clear -- at least for a moment. In Cabal, Zen grapples with the seemingly widely disparate worlds of the Vatican and high fashion. The story opens with a suicidal plunge from the dome of St. Peterís Basilica and wends its way through the arcane mysteries of the Church to the basilica of commerce — the Galleria in Milan.

             One piquant aspect of this series is that although Zen is recognizably himself from novel to novel, Dibdin varies the tone and structure of the narration. In Vendetta the reader is periodically allowed to enter the head of the killer, without being able to identify the source of the ramblings. Though it has its share of mayhem, Cosi Fan Tutti, which is set in Naples, is much lighter in tone, with the role reversals and identity tangles of a Shakespeare comedy.

             In some of the novels — most particularly A Long Finish — Dibdin deliberately places the reader beyond and ahead of Zen in penetrating the case. A Long Finish takes the detective into the Piedmont wine country to investigate a murder case which has threatened the harvest of a particularly good vintage. Planes of duplicity facet the story, each refracting the light at a different angle. The detective is in a quarrelsome frame of mind on this assignment. Fighting a cold and his own ghosts, he moves ahead, interviewing residents of the small, in-bred, reclusive community, eventually discerning an explanation for events but never truly penetrating the deepest layers of deception. Here is Italy at its most tradition-bound and closed, where the communityís first and strongest impulse is to resist the outsider by managing his expectations. Dibdin is superb at conveying the intricacies of conversation and exchanges in which the goal is to reveal nothing while learning enough to maintain oneís own position.

             Unlike many other mysteries or police procedurals, the Zen novels reward rereading for a number of reasons. The plots are so complex that many details can be missed on a first reading and the imagery — certain metaphors that Dibdin subtly employs in the plot structures -- often is not apparent, or appreciated, until the reader has followed through the sequence of events. Above all, Dibdinís prose style is rich. His phrasing is deft and concentrated and can be savored more a second time through. There are craftsmanship and artistry here to be appreciated. The French writer Gaston Bachelard believed every good book should be reread; on the second pass came the creative work of reading. The Zen series makes such an effort worthwhile.

             In the two novels before Medusa Blood Rain and And Then You Die — Zen faces the surrealism of the Sicilian Mafia, and his own actions become increasingly attenuated. In Blood Rain, after a series of heavy personal losses, he begins to ride the Italian trains, not going anywhere in particular but moving from station to station. He doesnít explore during his stopovers; he has rules for movement: he canít go backwards and he canít leave Italy. As he crisscrosses the peninsula, he reads cheap thrillers in which the plots have structure and the mysteries have solutions — something he despairs of in his own life. And Then You Die provides a coda to the previous novel, with Zen primarily fighting his own demons to arrive at a degree of peace with Gemma. In Medusa, the latest novel, reentering the fray of formal police work, he exhibits a detached professionalism. The reader wonders how long the tall thin Venetian will function so smoothly.

Copyright 2004 by Antonia Moras


 

Published
Quarterly by
Lifeloom.com
ISSN: 1547-9609

"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."
Sir Walter Scott

Spring 2004
Volume II
issue 1

 

 

W M M New Issue W M M Archives

 

Web Mystery Magazine (ISSN: 1547-9609) is an on-line quarterly journal dedicated to investigating the mysterious genre in print, in film, and in real-life. WMM welcomes well-researched, well-written articles, reviews, and fiction. Writers are invited to send letters and inquiries to editor@lifeloom.com.

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