The death of Michael Dibdin last March has robbed crime fiction of one of its most perceptive practitioners. Dibdin occasionally wrote stand-alone novels such as Thanksgiving (2000) and Dark Spectre (1995), but he is best known for his Aurelio Zen mysteries, a series set in Italy in which each outing finds the taciturn Venice-born detective dispatched to a new location, there to investigate the local idiosyncrasies and traditions with the same clear-eyed rigour he brings to his police work. Zen’s peripatetic lifestyle was mirrored by that of the author’s. Born in Wolverhampton in 1947, Dibdin’s early years were spent travelling as his father, an unusual combination of physicist and folklore expert, kept the family on the road. They finally settled in Lisburn in Northern Ireland, where the young Dibdin’s education at the Quaker’s Friends School was supplemented by the avid reading of some distinctly non-Quakerish crime fiction, in particular that of crime fiction’s premier stylist, Raymond Chandler. While his first novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978), was received as an entirely adequate pastiche, Dibdin only began to carve an original niche for himself after moving to Perugia to work. Back in Oxford, he produced the first Aurelio Zen novel, Ratking (1988), which was awarded the Gold Dagger Award by the Crime Writers’ Association for best crime novel of the year. End Games, the 11th novel in the Zen series, contains all the Dibdin hallmarks. This time the detective is in Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, content to mark time in the city of Cosenza while its police chief recovers from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Chandleresque eye for telling description is ever-present (‘This was a dish he had grown up with, the clitoral gristle of the clams in their gaping porcelain shells …’), as is the discursive mode of story-telling, in which the meandering plot is less important than the characters who keep the anti-heroic Zen in a perpetual state of stoical second-guessing, not least of whom is his own conscience. An American kidnapped whilst scouting movie locations and subsequently murdered in a gruesome ritual provides the initial impetus for the story, but as with Dibdin’s most recent novels, in which the detective barely survived repeated attempts on his life, the emphasis is very much on Zen’s deadpan investigation of his own precarious existence. We know now, sadly, that End Games brings the Zen cycle to a close, but from the beginning there are intimations that Dibdin intended this to be his final Zen novel. The title itself is shot through with foreboding, and the first line forsakes the usual light-hearted opening gambit for funereal finality: ‘The dead man parked his car at the edge of the town, beside a crumbling wall marking the bounds of a rock-gashed wasteland of crippled oaks and dusty scrub …’. The apocalyptic tone continues throughout. As the villains hove into view and their motives are unveiled, it becomes clear that Dibdin believes that his hero and the civilisation he represents is under siege, as he invokes the Romans’ sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem and the pillaging of Rome in turn by the Barbarian Alaric, whose long-lost Calabrian tomb is believed to contain treasures with the power to provoke armageddon and thus precipitate the Rapture of Christian fundamentalist belief. The police procedural aspect is handled with Dibdin’s usual panache, the dogged detective meticulously working his way through a labyrinthine plot with his by now familiar healthy disrespect for local traditions and the established tropes of the police procedural novel, all the while unburdening himself of eminently quotable observations (‘She gave him a lingering glance before moving on, the cheeks of her buttocks colluding furtively as she strolled away.’). The Calabrian hinterland, too, receives its due, with Dibdin convincingly recreating its rustic charms, centuries-old vendettas and self-deluding philosophies (“Reality here has always been so harsh that we have by necessity learnt to content ourselves with the possible, the desirable and the purely imaginary.”). There’s humour too in the form of the arch-villain, Jake, an inarticulate computer game mogul from America’s West Coast whose ‘dude-speak’ is mercilessly lampooned, while his apparently simplistic motive for pursuing Alaric’s fabled treasure, which is irritatingly at odds with Dibdin’s logical approach throughout, is neatly inverted when least expected. Despite the page-turning quality of the denouement, you may nevertheless find yourself sipping at the final pages as at a last glass of a particularly fine wine, as much to prolong the pleasure as to defer a reckoning that, for Dibdin fans at least, will prove every bit as apocalyptic as that envisaged by Zen’s nemesis.- Declan Burke
This review is reproduced with the kind permission of the Irish Times.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.