A cardinal defect of the detective novel, in many critics’ eyes, is its need to skimp on character development. Almost by definition, a whodunit must guard from the reader’s view the deepest thoughts and urges of any character who might become a suspect, lest it become apparent (say, through an interior monologue) that he or she committed—or could not have committed—the foul deed in question. A certain superficiality, therefore, seems instrinsic to even the best-written examples of the genre.
Dibdin, in this first entry in his series about Italian police commissioner Aurelio Zen, remedies that flaw by taking the narrative structure of so-called literary fiction and turning it upside-down. Near the end of the book, there is a point at which Zen has solved the outer mysteries of this rich tale: Who kidnapped the Perugian industrialist Ruggiero Miletti? Who among Miletti’s entourage conspired with those kidnappers? Who killed the old patriarch as the kidnap scheme went awry? (Details from the 1978 kidnapping of Italian politician Aldo Moro form part of the backdrop to this plot.) At that point, before the finale, Dibdin unfurls a tapestry of acutely imagined character material, all of it comparable to what another writer might roll out in the early going of a “straight” novel. He unravels the inner mystery of several key suspects—telling their back-stories, revealing their core drives, making their attitude toward the murder victim completely transparent.
Somehow it all works. It works because, as in any good detective story, the detective practically fills the character-development quota all by himself. Zen comes across initially as a comic figure. The four Miletti children and their consorts, who pull the unseen strings behind this case, all make sport of him. Local investigating officers alternately ignore, humor, and manipulate him. Yet Zen, beneath a phlegmatic exterior, possesses a questing intelligence and a stout survival instinct that lead him to a measure of truth (though not, alas, to justice) and to victory in a bureaucratic battle (though not, of course, to victory in the larger war against corrupt officialdom).
The novel also works because of the compelling, albeit revolting, metaphor that Dibdin places at its thematic center. A ratking, a creature out of cryptozoology that comes into being when several rats fuse together at their tails, looms as the perfect image of how power operates in Italy. True, this many-headed rodent may not actually exist. But that aura of ambiguity only strengthens the point.
[ADDENDUM: News comes that the BBC will soon bring Aurelio Zen to television. Production starts this spring on three feature-length episodes, each based on a novel by Dibdin: Vendetta (1990) and Cabal (1992), along with Ratking. Although I look forward to seeing them, I’m a little worried that the producers of “Aurelio Zen” plan to adapt their source material almost beyond recognition. According to the BBC announcement, “the series will feature many of the combined attractions of Italy and the Dibdin novels—thrilling investigations, fun, warmth and beautiful people.” In Ratking, at least, “fun” and “warmth” are in very short supply. Playing Zen in the new series, meanwhile, will be Rufus Sewell, a ridiculously handsome man who hardly comports with my vision of the dour, middle-aged character that Dibdin created.]