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"The dead man parked his car at the edge of the town..." What? A *dead* man parked a car? A typo? No, the brill first sentence of Michael Dibdin's last thriller 'End Games'. Who would not read on to understand the mystery?
The 'dead man' is an American lawyer, the scout of a film company, sent to Cosenza, a town in the Italian region of Calabria, to prepare the shooting of a film. He's kidnapped, though, but no ransom is asked, instead his kidnappers 'dressed him up as a corpse, made him walk to a village someplace, then blew his head off'.
Police investigator Aurelio Zen, sent from Rome to substitute the Chief of Police, has to investigate the case. Things are complicated by the fact that the film is only a cover-up for an illegal treasure hunt. The Gothic chieftain Alaric was buried with the loot from the Temple of Jerusalem, which he had plundered in Rome, in a river near Cosenza in the fifth century and the 'film producer', an American software millionaire, wants to find it and take it out of the country. Moreover, old conflicts between landowners and peasants which go back a hundred years flare up again and old-fashioned banditry is still alive.
'End Games' is the last book in the famous Aurelio Zen series by the British author Michael Dibdin, the last in the real sense of the word, because the author died in 2007 - before the book was published. Eight years ago I wrote a review on 'Michael Dibdin in general' covering the seven thrillers which had appeared then. I thought that was it, the author had rounded Aurelio Zen's career off so-to-speak and had declared in an interview, "If you get bored, change the continent." After that he moved to the USA.
I admired this consistency and thought him a man of principles, imagine my surprise when another book featuring Aurelio Zen was published, 'And then you die' (2002). And then another, 'Medusa' (2003). I read both for old times' sake and was disappointed twice, Dibdin had clearly lost his grip. When 'Back to Bologna' was published in 2005, I refused to read it, I was embarrassed for Mr Dibdin. I don't know what came over me so that I bought 'End Games' (2007), Dibdin wouldn't have found back his old panache after three weak performances, would he? But he did, he did indeed!
Aurelio Zen is in Calabria this time, the southernmost region of the Italian peninsula, the tip of the boot, in a godforsaken place he wouldn't want to be buried in. He's from Venice after all, there's nothing that connects him with the people here, he can't understand the local dialect; with the cuisine, tomatoes every day and in everything; with the crude architecture. He's "sick to death of this romantic mystique of the south" and "fed up with hearing how crime down here is eradicable because it feeds off an unfathomable collective traditions of blood, honour and tragedy".
Why has he come? Well, he's filling in for the local Chief of Police who's shot himself in the foot cleaning his pistol. He knows that his stay is only short-termed but that doesn't mean that he doesn't throw himself into the case at hand. As always in the Zen thrillers, the crime has a local background, in order to understand it Zen must delve into the mysteries of the place. Dibdin is brilliant when describing the characteristics of the region he sets his stories in, he captures the idiosyncratic essence of the landscape and the characters of the locals.
He knew Italy well, he lived there for some years (he taught English at the University of Perugia) where he acquired a profound insight into Italian politics (No easy matter not even for Italians!) and the mentality of the people. So, besides being entertained by a gripping plot you always learn something. As Dibdin explained, "Crime fiction is an objective, realistic genre because it's about the real world, real bodies really being killed by somebody. And this involves the investigator in trying to understand the society that the person lives in."
What is the investigator Aurelio Zen like? It's odd that it's next to impossible to describe the man, even after eleven books. Many authors of thrillers create protagonists who've got such rich private lives that readers are keen on sequels not only for the new plots but also in order to learn more about the protagonists they've come to love. If you get to know Zen only in 'End Games' then you know more or less only that he's tall, aristocratic looking with the aura of a priest, anti-heroic, obstinate, intelligent and full of integrity, has a wife and smokes a lot. As his name suggests, he's a man of thought rather than action. Dibdin, "I invented the Zen character..., but I wasn't really particularly interested in him, so there wasn't a lot about him. He's really just a facilitator who comes in and makes it possible for other things to happen."
Dibdin may be reticent concerning his main protagonist, this does not mean, however, that he's not good at characterisations. On the contrary! He's a gifted stylist who knows and uses his mother tongue well, a compliment which I rarely pay an author of thrillers. He doesn't tell us that the American software millionaire who wants to find Alaric's treasure is a moron, he makes us look at him through the eyes of an intelligent underling and then lets the man talk himself. Or, when his wife mentions her wish to have a baby, he tells her, "We'll have one... Real soon. I just have to get this project finished first. As soon as that's done I'll switch to breeding mode, I promise."
When his manager asks him if he's Jewish because the only artefact of the treasure he seems to be interested in is the Menorah, he answers, "Are bears Catholics? Does the Pope shit in the woods?"
How sad that when Dibdin had overcome his crisis he had to die. But he'll live on in his books (he also wrote some stand alone novels) which have been translated into 18 languages and in the influence he had on other writers. Ian Rankin states explicitly that he learnt a lot from him.
Highly recommended as all the other books of the Zen series from 'Ratking' (1988) to 'Blood Rain' (1999).
faber and faber
RRP 6.99 GBP