Sunday, September 29, 2013

Z is for Aurelio Zen

Aurelio Zen is the main character in a crime fiction series by Michael Dibdin (1947-2007). He is an Italian policeman, and at various times is posted to different cities in Italy. Dibdin was born in England and lived at times in Northern Ireland and Canada. He lived for four years in Italy, prior to writing the Aurelio Zen series. At the time of his death, he was living in Seattle, Washington with his wife, the author K. K. Beck.

I read the first Aurelio Zen book, Ratking, in late 2004. Nearly nine years ago. That book was awarded the CWA Gold Dagger for 1988. Regardless, when I read the book, I was not overly impressed. Which I suppose it why it took me so long to try the series again, even though I have several books in the series in my TBR pile.

This week, I read Vendetta, the second book in the series. In that novel, Zen is stationed in Rome but is sent to Sardinia to investigate the murder of a rich and eccentric businessman, Oscar Burolo, and his wife and visitors to his vacation home in Sardinia.

At the beginning of this book, Zen has been promoted to the Ministry's prestigious Criminalpol division. He had mistakenly thought this would be an interesting and challenging job, but he has found that the division is filled with cynical bureaucrats and rife with corruption. After providing an overview of the crime, he is sent to follow up on the case, and essentially to find (or manufacture) evidence to convict a suspect, regardless of the suspect's culpability for the crime.

This book has several outstanding elements. The prose is beautiful, and that alone makes it pleasant reading. The picture of Aurelio Zen's mundane life and his lusts and fears is very well done. He is no heroic figure, although he really does want to do the job honestly and well. He has a relationship with his elderly mother who lives with him that is well-drawn and turns in a different direction that you would expect. There is a flirtation with a secretary in his division that spices up the story.

Some excerpts:
What would happen when he no longer had this ready-made way of filling his days? The government had recently been making noises about the need to reduce the size of the bloated public sector. Early retirement for senior staff was one obvious option. Fortunately it was unlikely that anything more than talk would come of it. A government consisting of a coalition of five parties, each with an axe to grind and clients to keep happy, found it almost impossible to pass legislation that was likely to prove mildly unpopular with anyone, never mind tackle the bureaucratic hydra which kept almost a third of the working population in guaranteed employment. Nevertheless, he would have to retire one day. The thought of it continued to haunt him like the prospect of some chronic illness. How would he get through the day? What would he do? His life had turned into a dead end.
The streets were steeped in mild November sunlight and ringing with sounds. Gangs of noisy schoolchildren passed by, flaunting the personalities that would be buried alive for the next five hours. The metallic roars of shutters announced that the shops in the area were opening for business. A staccato hammering and the swishing of a paint sprayer issued from the open windows of the basement workshops where craftsmen performed mysterious operations on lengths of moulded wood. But the traffic dominated: the uniform hum of new cars, the idiosyncratic racket of the old, the throaty gurgle of diesels, the angry buzzing of scooters and three-wheeled vans, the buses' hollow roar, the chainsaw sound of an unsilenced trail bike, the squeal of brakes, the strident discord of horns in conflict.
Unfortunately I did not find the mystery element that intriguing, although I did like that there were multiple threads that are followed throughout. And I enjoyed the intrigues within his division.

All in all, I would say that I found much more good than bad in this novel, and it was definitely a good experience to read it. Dibdin just doesn't fall into my list of must read authors. I welcome other views and suggestions and information about other novels in the series.

From reading other reviews, it appears that there is a lot of diversity in the Aurelio Zen novels. They each have different formats or approaches. They have a very polished literary quality and may appeal to readers who are not so fond of crime novels. Thus I am sure I will continue to sample this series from time to time.

The books in the series are:
  1. Ratking (1988)
  2. Vendetta (1990)
  3. Cabal (1992)
  4. Dead Lagoon (1994)
  5. Cosi Fan Tutti (1996)
  6. A Long Finish (1998)
  7. Blood Rain (1999)
  8. And Then You Die (2002)
  9. Medusa (2003)
  10. Back to Bologna (2005)
  11. End Games (2007)
Submitted for the Alphabet in Crime Fiction for the letter Z. This community meme is hosted by Mysteries In Paradise. We are now at the end of the alphabet. Since I committed to a theme (police procedurals), it has been demanding to fit books I wanted to read into the alphabet scheme. On the other hand, concentrating on police procedurals in a 26-week period gave me an overview of the variations in how this sub-genre is approached by various authors. I will miss seeing other posts in the meme.

Also for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VIII event, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. Reviews for that event are here.


Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: Congratulations on reaching "Z". It is an achievement to proceed through the alphabet using a theme for the posts.

I have only read Ratking. My experience appears to parallel your take on the book. I enjoyed it but have not made it a priority to read the next in the series. Should there be a CFA meme next year there is a good chance Zen will be my "Z".

col2910 said...

Well done Tracy! I haven't yet read anything by the author, but probably have something lurking on the pile. I'm probably not rushing to get to it though.

Sarah said...

I haven't read many books by Didbin but had loved the Aurelio Zen books that I have read. You're reminded me that I must try some more.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Bill, and I have enjoyed your theme this year. Because I have read that each Aurelio Zen book is different, I think I will work my way through the books, although it could take me a while.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Col. The Zen books may not be your thing, but it would be interesting to see what you think of him. I think I would like to try the series on DVD once I have read the next one.

TracyK said...

Sarah, Glad to hear you liked those you read. I always find it interesting to read books set in a country by a non-native vs. those by an author from that country. I enjoyed reading some interviews of with Dibdin where he talks about the Italian reception to his books.... which was not negative.

w said...

I read your excellent review while I was at work yesterday. I plan to check this book out as it sounds really good. Thanks Tracy.

RebeccaK said...

Congrats on finishing the crime fiction alphabet, Tracy! I haven't read or watched any Aurelio Zen novels/adaptations, but I will put them on my list.

TracyK said...

Keishon, I do hope you try it. And like it. Certainly a different type of mystery and a unique protagonist.

TracyK said...

Rebecca, the crime fiction alphabet was rewarding. I will be eager to hear what you think of Dibdin's novels or the TV adaptations. I have heard mixed comments on the adaptations, but that is not unusual.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Your review really chimes with my feelings about the Dibdin books - of the few I've read (including RATKING), it really did seem that the prose was great but the plots were lacking - his depiction of Italy is fairly accurate though it seems to me, so I did find that a reasonable plus - great review TracyK!

TracyK said...

Sergio, I am glad to hear you say that about the accuracy. That is what I had heard.

Clothes In Books said...

I quite liked the Aurelio Zen books, but never so much that I was rushing to get another. I did like this one, as I remember, and Cosi fan Tutte (but that's because I like the opera he uses as a starting-off point). I haven't read them all, but will pick up another one day...

TracyK said...

Moira, me too. I will probably pace myself to read one a year. I like the idea that each is different, not a formula. Formula can be fine if you like the formula, but variety is nice too.