Michael Dibdin and Aurelio Zen's Italy

Monday Sep 14 2009
by Jack Bumsted


A number of contemporary crime authors have set extensive series in English about Italy, among them Donna Leon, Magdalene Nabb, Timothy Holme, and Timothy Williams.  Arguably the most fascinating of the lot, however, is Michael Dibdin, who between 1988 and 2007 wrote eleven novels about Italy featuring Aurelio Zen, who in most of these books is a Criminalpol officer based in Rome.  Despite his Roman base, however, Zen travels around Italy as a special investigator, and his cases take him to a variety of Italian locations, the local societies of which are all described in considerable detail in the books.  Zen starts his fictional sleuthing in Perugia, a hill town in central Italy, and ends it in Sicily, an island in the far south.  In between he visits among other places the Vatican, Sardinia, Alba, and  Bologna.  The local societies Zen deals with are carefully limned with a photographic eye for detail, and the food and wine he consumes are described in loving particulars. 

One of the major backdrops in all the Zen novels is the rampant corruption in Italy with which the detective has to deal on a daily basis.  This corruption seeps into every nook and cranny of the country, and even tries to wrap its tentacles around Zen himself, who invariably finds that there is some corrupt political or economic purpose behind his assignments.  Corruption even reaches Zen himself.  His girl-friend in the earlier books, Tania, is part of the administrative staff at Criminalpol, who is using the departments communications equipment to run a food export business.  And on more than one occasion, Zen compromises with the system, often to solve a case.  

Ironically enough, despite the heavily-freighted political implications of Zen’s cases, most of the actual murders themselves turn out to be family-related rather than part of organized crime networks.   Even the murder of the kidnap victim in the first Zen book (Ratking, 1988) is a family affair, although the kidnapping itself has been carried out by a gang of criminals.  The private nature of murder, as opposed to the public nature of criminality, is one of the many themes addressed in this series.

The Aurelio Zen series:

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)

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