Wednesday, November 4, 2009

That was Zen

The death of Michael Dibdin a couple of years ago came as a shock to me, not just because it was untimely but also because somehow Dibdin always struck me as a quintessentially modern writer.  His books seemed very successfully to skewer key aspects of contemporary society - individualism, consumerism, political corruption, opportunism - in a manner that was always entertaining and often enlightening.

Many current crime writers, myself included, owe a considerable debt to Dibdin.  This is partly because he was one of a group of British writers - the most notable others probably being Ian Rankin and John Harvey - who created a genre of police procedural which now almost feels like the norm.  It's intriguing that the first Rebus, Resnick and Aurelio Zen books were published within a year or two of each other in the late 1980s.  I'm not sure what was in the air back then (although Harvey has cited Hill Street Blues as a key influence, filtered through his TV series Hard Cases, on the Resnick books).  Whatever it was, it produced a fascinating cluster of middle-aged, world-weary, streetwise detectives in a wealth of books that were witty, literate and beautifully plotted and characterised. 

Dibdin went a step further and set his books in an Italy, avoiding the tourist cliches and trying to get as far under the skin of the country as a foreigner can.  While he was by no means the first crime writer to set his books in exotic locations, his cynical, ironic but always respectful take on Italian mores again helped to open the door for another generation of writers.  Without the influence of Dibdin (and of Martin Cruz Smith's Renko series which began a few years earlier), I doubt I would have embarked on the Nergui books. 

Another of Dibdin's great qualities was that, while he always played appropriate due to the conventions of crime fiction, he didn't take the genre too seriously.  His non-Zen books included playful, but generally highly effective, takes on Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and other totems of crime fiction.  His penultimate Aurelio Zen book, Back to Bologna, divided readers by adopting an equally playful approach to his recurrent protagonist.  I enjoyed the book enormously, though I could see why some readers felt he was perhaps letting a little too much ludic daylight in on his particular narrative magic. 

For some reason, it's taken me a while to getting around to reading Dibdin's final Zen book, End Games.  This wasn't a conscious choice - I've just been working me way through the endless 'to be read' piles - but maybe I was also waiting to savour this last treat. 

I don't know if the title, which carries various resonances in the book, was Dibdin's original.  It suggests that, like Rankin's Exit Music, the book might have a valedictory air.  In fact, apart from a passing reference in the final chapter to the possibility of Zen taking early retirement (not on the grounds of failing powers but simply because, once again, he has come into conflict with the intractable bureaucracy of the Italian state), there is no real hint of farewell in the book (although the ever-assiduous Mark Lawson managed to unearth a few more possible allusions). 

End Games is perhaps not, in fairness, Dibdin's best book. Zen has been sent to cover for an absent police chief (who has, quite literally, shot himself in the foot) in Calabria in Italy's far south.  Zen feels like a fish left high and dry, at odds with the local culture, cuisine and populace.  That, for me, is one of the book's problems.  Dibdin has never played safe with location - whereas Rankin's Edinburgh or Harvey's Nottingham (or, for that matter, Donna Leon's Venice) are more or less characters in their own right, Dibdin always took pleasure in moving Zen into unfamiliar territories.  Generally, this works weli, dragging Zen out of his comfort zone and allowing the reader insights into the diverse aspects of Italian society.  Here,  I wasn't sure that Dibdin's heart was fully in it.  The complaints about the heat, the dryness and the ubiquitous tomato (the devil's food, as far as Zen is concerned, which might come as a surprise to those familiar only with Southern Italian cuisine) feel a little perfunctory.  The tension between Zen and his new subordinates never quite seems fully developed. 

But, if the book is slightly sub-par Dibdin, it still displays all the qualities that marked him as one of the leading crime writers of his generation - the evocation of landscape, the prose-style, the dialogue, the characterisation, the satire.  Here, the satire is largely directed at Jake Daniels, the vapid American entrenpreneur who, despite his wealths,  makes up in stupidity for what he lacks in knowledge.  If Dibdin's pastiche occasionally drifts slightly over the top, his mimicking of Daniels's voice generally feels pitch-perfect and is always a delight. 

This book probably isn't the best place to start if you've not read the Zen books before (that would be Ratking, the first one).  But, if you have and you've enjoyed them, it's not a bad place to finish. 


1. Martin+Edwards said...

I too was a Dibdin fan. Dirty Tricks is great fun, along with the Zen books.

2. Michael Walters said...

Thanks, Martin. Yes - fully agree about Dirty Tricks. There are some intriguing gems among the non-Zen books.

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