Retro review: Ratking, Michael Dibdin’s first Inspector Zen novel

Review by C.J. Bunce

I was given Michael Dibdin’s series of Aurelio Zen novels as a gift after I was blown away by the short BBC TV series Zen starring Rufus Sewell, my current pick for an ideal future James Bond.  Because of Sewell’s performance I compared his Zen to the original Zen in Dibdin’s first Zen novel Ratking, and found myself comparing James Bond to Aurelio Zen after recently reading Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, Casino Royale.

Certainly there are similarities between Zen and Bond, but for the most part these are very different novels and genres and absolutely different characters.  From a basic level you can easily set up some analogies: Aurelio Zen is from Venice as Bond hails from England–the individuals are very much creations and defined by their origins.  Where Bond leaves London to encounter adventure in cities throughout the world, Zen’s entire world is Italy.  Where Bond has his mixed drinks, Zen has his coffee.  But Bond is a superhero of sorts to his peers and his country, whereas Zen is, by the appearances of his countrymen, flawed, heavily so in fact.  Yet its his flaws, pointed out by his superiors in the police department of Rome and townsfolk of the hill town of Perugia, that makes him endearing and accessible to readers.  He is the put-upon common working cop like Lennie Brisco or Joe Friday, but he just happens to live in Italy.

And Italy is a huge part of the novel and presumably the entire series.  Dibdin writes with such authority of Italy, including political leanings of various towns, factions, and agendas, histories of cities and real people and relationships with Italy and the rest of Europe, carryovers from World War II and Mussolini, etc., that you immediately take his word as your expert travel guide.  Where the BBC series painted a beautiful picture of Italy, however, in Ratking Dibdin shows us Perugia as the seediest of villages, and the citizenry, or at least the wealthy industrial family that is the focus of the story, outright repulsive.  Think of the family in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Dibdin’s Milettis could be interchangeable–no better or worse, just equally creepy and vile.  The ugliness permeates the novel almost to the point of  making the reader want to skip ahead to the next novel in the series where Zen is back working in Rome–but only “almost.”

Zen himself, as Dibdin puts it, carries “one of those annoying little Mona Lisa smiles which makes everyone wonder why you’re so pleased with yourself”.  Sewell nailed this piece of the original character set-up in the TV series, and it is something I expected was more brought by the actor than the story but was pleasantly surprised I was wrong.  Dibdin holds enough back so you do not know what Zen is thinking–Zen is quirky in the most mild-mannered of ways.  He has his own classiness like Bond, but in a boy scout sort of way.

I am familiar with Italy but only the history of Italy of ancient times and I found the people of Dibdin’s Italy as conniving and corrupt as Rome’s founders of several centuries past.  No one can be trusted.  Everyone is out for himself.  It is this realization that Dibdin focuses in on through his story of the grotesque concept of the ratking.  His characters, other than Zen, his mother, and a few friends, are an anti-travelogue for Italy.  In several ways the story is a noir piece akin to John Huston’s noir film Chinatown.  Like Jake Gittes, Aurelio Zen doesn’t have all the answers, and as much as he uses skill to unravel a kidnapping and murder case, he stumbles into and out of answers and danger like Gittes.  In the end instinct and a clear internal code of conduct guides Zen and sets us up for future stories.

Zen is an outsider–a policeman from Venice working in Rome who is shunned by his fellow officers for some past role in working an earlier kidnapping case.  Venetians are looked down upon in Dibdin’s Rome–and the reader gets sucked into stereotypes that at first seem foreign, yet they can easily be replicated in America–how people in one state look down upon another state or region, for example.  The immersion is so deep the reader must stop now and then and ask “am I supposed to know Florencians are aristocratic?”

In Perugia a wealthy patrician calls for help to investigate the kidnapping of a famous friend, a powerful industrialist named Ruggiero Miletti, resulting in a humorous, lengthy passing off of the responsibility until it can land in only one place–our hero’s lap.  The investigation of Miletti’s children becomes the playground for Zen’s sleuthing, despite pressures from every direction to fail at his task, from bosses, government agencies, the family, even the criminals themselves in a nicely strange twist.  The best pacing and action is in the last third of the novel, where Dibdin’s cop is in full stride.  The ending is crafted very well, and includes a jumping off point for future books.

Did Miletti’s own family kidnap him for a ransom to help the family’s failing businesses?   Or did individual family members play some role in this dark web of lies?  … the lavish son Daniele, the ethereal and seductive daughter Cinzia, the perverted son Silvio, the conniving son Pietro…  Is Zen himself just part of the ratking or is that imagery itself flawed?  As Zen forges ahead he learns that his own survival may depend on his ability to adapt and succeed at this single case.  Dibdin’s introduction to Zen in Ratkingreveals a measured character in a very dark world, but a character you will want to see again very soon.

One comment

  1. Great review! My wife and I loved Zen on BBC last summer too. Such a great character and the backdrop of Italy…very cool.

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