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La dolce setting for him

In his mystery series, British author Michael Dibdin probed Italian regions, politics and culture like a native.

September 20, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

One of the fascinating things about the hard-boiled tradition is its geographic flexibility. Writers all over the world have taken the form, altered it to suit their times and temperaments and made it at home almost everywhere.

The peripatetic Michael Dibdin -- who died last year, a few days after his 60th birthday, and whose final novel, "End Games" has recently come out in paperback -- may demonstrate this principle better than anyone.

Born in England's West Midlands and raised largely in Northern Ireland, Dibdin settled in Seattle in 1995 and set most of his books in Italy.

His 11 novels featuring elusive, grappa-drinking police detective Aurelio Zen dig deeply into the culture and politics of Italy's regions and cities. Carl Bromley, who this year wrote a substantial piece in the Nation on the author's "dark, ironic but oddly nostalgic vision," describes each book as "another piece of the jigsaw puzzle" of this alluring and enigmatic country.

Though the novels have been dismissed by detractors as "tourist noir," Zen experiences Italy in almost the opposite way that Anglo vacationers encounter bella Italia.

"Some of the books begin with a phone call," says Edward Kastenmeier, Dibdin's longtime editor at Vintage Books. "And Aurelio Zen is sent to a different part of Italy, where he's not wanted, where he doesn't want to be and where he's trying to solve a crime that many people would like to stay hidden."

Detective novels encourage their heroes to range up and down through society, from dark alleys to the villas of the wealthy. They can give fuller portraits of a culture than can mainstream novels, which tend to focus on a single class, family or milieu.

While certain mystery writers effectively own a city -- James Lee Burke and New Orleans, for instance -- and many have set their work in Italy, Dibdin is unusual in trying to cover the entire country with sociological rigor. Zen must penetrate not only the intricacies of his cases but also a succession of local cultures, with their bureaucracies, dialects and dueling police forces.

"He was really interested in exploring Italian culture," Kastenmeier says, "and he was using the crime novel to do that."

Despite their prevailing noirish tone, the books are anything but joyless. Indeed, they range from the deeply grim to the comic.

"He tried to make every book different," notes Tom Nolan, the Ross Macdonald biographer who reviewed Dibdin's novels for the Wall Street Journal. "There's one modeled on a Mozart opera. That's the kind of thing really inventive people do when they write a series. His books were in no way ordinary."

The series kicks off with an ingenious combination of tones: "Ratking," published in 1988, opens with a series of phone calls without narration, as the powerful friend of a kidnapped Perugian industrialist calls a Roman senator to pressure him into reviving a languishing investigation. The calls move up the chain of command until Zen is dispatched to the Umbrian capital.

It's profane, hilarious and, according to Bromley, "better than what you'd find in a textbook -- the complexity and the networks and the labyrinth. As the conversation climbs through the hierarchy, the language changes. He could be a very funny writer."

Zen finds what he calls the misteri d' Italia in almost every corner: After "Ratking," the series shifts to Zen's native Venice ("Dead Lagoon") and then on to the Piedmont wine country ("A Long Finish"), before concluding in Calabria with "End Games." The tone changes novel by novel to suit each region's spirit.

But all the books are set in a nation of hidden power, of insularity and corruption, of political extremes that stretch from communism to neo-fascism. Today's Italy, Zen muses in the sinister 2003 novel "Medusa," is a "new culture of empty slogans, insincere smiles, and hollow promises," a country, as Bromley puts it, entirely without consensus.

Zen is a spectral presence in some of the books, and he often begins reluctantly. "Doing his job puts him in peril," says Nolan, who compares Dibdin's wordplay to that of Lawrence Durrell and Vladimir Nabokov.

For Bromley, Zen is "a perpetual outsider wherever he ends up." The same could be said for Dibdin: Growing up in Belfast certainly would be a way to see the dangers that difference -- as well as group loyalty -- brings.

Dibdin taught English in Perugia as a young man and surely got a lesson in bureaucracy. He made his debut in 1978 with "The Last Sherlock Holmes Story" and moved to Seattle decades later to be with mystery novelist K.K. Beck, his third wife. He lived like a perpetual foreign correspondent.

The author was no stranger to acclaim: He was consistently well reviewed, and his fans included English mystery queen Ruth Rendell, who called "Ratking" "both subtle and horrific," and Ian Rankin, the Scottish crime novelist who said Dibdin's works led him to make his own books more political.

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