Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 27; 24 November 2021

“After all, Zen was just a policeman”

The moral trajectory of Michael Dibdin’s Venetian detective

As I’ve said before:

Series of crime novels are popular with readers but they pose particular problems for authors. The popularity is understandable: a book which belongs to a series provides a quick way to find one’s bearings, something recognizable but with variations. The problems for the author include the need to keep the central characters alive and active from one book to the next and to avoid becoming repetitive.

Given this popularity, it’s not surprising that readers on Goodreads and similar sites often want to know whether the books in a particular series need to be read in order. In most cases the answer is “No”: the books tell standalone, self-contained stories. They may refer to the earlier books in the series but it’s not necessary to grasp the full significance of these references to follow the plot, or the changes in the characters’ relationships. I often wonder, when I see an answer along these lines, why the reader doesn’t just take it for granted that the books can be read in whichever order they come to her, and plunge straight into the one she has to hand. I’d even say it’s one of the tacit rules of the genre that books in a crime fiction series can be read in any order that suits the reader. But if it’s a rule, it’s one that Michael Dibdin broke.

When I first read the Aurelio Zen books, I didn’t start at the beginning. In my experience, it’s almost unheard of to come across the individual novels that form a crime series in the exact order of publication. I had read at least three or four of the Zen books before I got my hands on a copy of Ratking (1988). As a result, my impression at first was that Aurelio Zen is, for a series character, unusually inconsistent and difficult to pin down. It wasn’t until I’d read more than half of the series that I began to see the pattern: he gradually but perceptibly becomes less conscientious and less law abiding from book to book, at least for the first eight novels.

Ratking (1988)

In the first novel, Zen is already a detective of many years’ experience. He has been sidelined — restricted to tedious administrative duties — because, as a result of performing his duties conscientiously and assiduously, he very nearly found the location where kidnappers were holding Aldo Moro before killing him. Because of a shortage of available officers, Zen is sent to Perugia, where negotiations for the release of a kidnapped industrialist have stalled for several months. Zen presence is meant to be nothing more than a sign that the Ministry is taking an interest, but he involves himself in the investigation and is able to show that the victim’s eventual murder is not (contrary to expectations) the work of a member of his immediate family but of a convenient foreigner. This result is viewed favourably in high places, and Zen is returned to active duty.

Vendetta (1990)

In Vendetta, his reputation as a reliable if not particularly clean pair of hands leads to his being given a sensitive assignment. A wealthy businessman, his wife and guests have been murdered with a shotgun inside his apparently impregnable fortified compound, built on the site of a former farmhouse on Sardinia. Though nobody is able to figure out how the murder was committed, there seems no room for doubt as to who is responsible, and the suspect is in custody. However, the suspect has powerful political connections, and a bigwig from one of the smaller parties in government, referred to only as “l’onorevole”, sends Zen to the island with instructions to “find” evidence against another potential suspect, and secure the release of the man who is at present being held for the crime.

Zen is not happy with his assignment, as he tells his friend, Gilberto Nieddu, a former police colleague who now has a successful security and surveillance business.

“Look, I’ll spell it out for you. They’re asking me to frame someone.”

When Nieddu is unsympathetic to his predicament, Zen adds:

“Gilberto, we are talking here about sending an innocent person to prison for twenty years, to say nothing of allowing a man who has gunned down four people in cold blood to walk free. Quite apart from the moral aspect, that is seriously illegal. (Vendetta, p. 99)

In the end, the real killer turns out to be neither the suspect in custody nor the plausible alternative that Zen has been told to frame. It seems to l’onorevole that Zen has taken the initiative to find a better patsy, someone with no friends, no power and no influence, on whom to pin the crime. His image as at once unscrupulous and dependable is enhanced, while conversely his reputation with his colleagues as dangerous and compromised is confirmed.

Cabal (1992)

In the next book, on the recommendation of l’onorevole and his friends, Zen is called in by the Vatican who have a potentially embarrassing death to deal with. An Italian aristocrat, Prince Ludovico Ruspanti, has fallen from a gallery high in the dome of St Peter’s during Mass. Zen understands that the Vatican authorities want the death to be confirmed as suicide, and he is prepared to go along with that, though he can see that the evidence unequivocally indicates that it was murder.

The prince had been under investigation by a magistrate in Milan for smuggling money out of Italy and into Swiss banks via the financial institutions of the Vatican. He had taken refuge in Vatican City, getting in the good books of the authorities there by telling them about a secret, reactionary, rogue “cabal” within the Knights of Malta. The Cabal was purely Ruspanti’s invention, but it’s an invention that proves useful to several parties, including Zen himself.

The problem for Zen in taking orders from the deputy to Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State is that the latter can’t be expected to say in terms precisely which laws he would like broken, and in what ways. Zen has to read the runes for himself. When it becomes clear that Ruspanti’s death can’t be passed off as suicide, Zen intuits that he’s expected to frame a suitable suspect as the killer, and that the most likely candidate is Giovanni Grimaldi, the Vatican cop who had been assigned to follow and watch the prince and who, following the death, had apparently been trying to blackmail the killers.

This time, Zen shows none of the compunction he’d felt in Vendetta when told to send “an innocent person to prison for twenty years”. He goes to plant the incriminating evidence in Grimaldi’s room, only to find that the real killers have got there first and that Grimaldi is no longer a viable suspect, or viable in any sense.

In the meantime, Zen has set up his lover, Tania Biacis, in an apartment that he can’t afford. Like many police employees, Tania is using public resources to run her successful business and could easily afford to pay the rent herself, but she is wary of telling Zen about this. She is reticent mainly because she doesn’t want to undermine Zen’s sense of masculinity by letting him know she could buy and sell him several times over, but there’s another subsidiary but equally pressing reason.

By nature a loner, his reputation damaged by a mistaken fit of zealousness at the time of the Moro affair, he was promoted to the Ministry’s élite Criminalpol squad as a result of an unsavoury deal during his comeback case in Perugia, and had subsequently been connected with a heavily compromised political party at the time of the Burolo affair. As a result, Zen was surrounded by enemies who would like nothing better than to implicate him in a case involving misuse of bureaucratic resources and conspiracy to defraud the state, not to mention a little matter of undeclared taxes amounting to several million lire. (Cabal, p. 43)

Zen, in other words, is not somebody who can afford to get involved, or be seen to be involved, in “private enterprise”, even if he had been so inclined. By the end of Cabal, however, he has concluded that if he is going to keep up with Tania, he doesn’t have much choice. Having told the magistrate who was investigating Ruspanti’s financial irregularities that “I’ve been put in an impossible position in this case, but basically I’m on the side of the angels,” and heard her reply “I’m not concerned with angels, dottore. What I need is someone who’s on the side of the law” (Cabal, p. 221), he apparently decides that that’s a step too far for him. He tries to shake down the survivor of the murderers (who has since thrown his accomplice from a train):

“I mean I’m on the make,” Zen replied. “I’m a corrupt cop. You’ve read about them in the papers, you’ve seen them on television. Now, for a limited period only, you can have one in your own home or office.” (Cabal, p. 271)

Unfortunately for Zen’s finances, his attempt to assume the role of corrupt cop doesn’t work out. The killer takes fright and tries to run away, leading to his fatal fall from the dome of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. His death at the end of the novel in the secular basilica, or “temple of commerce” (p. 276) mirrors the one he set in motion in St Peter’s at the start.

Dead Lagoon (1994)

In Dead Lagoon, Zen has overcome his qualms about private enterprise, and had himself transferred to the city of his birth to take over an unspecified case. Once he gets there, he learns that the contessa Ada Zulian, who had once employed Zen’s mother in menial work, is being harassed in her home. That case provides suitable cover for his presence in the city but he’s really there to investigate the disappearance and presumed kidnapping of an American businessman (actually a Serb war criminal from the Second World War). That investigation isn’t official: Zen is working on behalf of, and being paid by, a US lawyer acting for the missing man’s family.

Zen’s trip home is a disaster from his point of view. He solves Ada Zulian’s case but she refuses to prosecute, he discovers what happened to the kidnapped man, but is unable to do anything about it. His discovery of the man’s corpse incidentally leads to the recovery of missing drugs which provided the motive for another murder, but he feels obliged to pass that case to another detective, along with the credit for the arrests. Worst of all, his stubbornness drives his best childhood friend to kill himself.

Venice turns out not to be the place he thought he remembered from childhood, and he also finds reason to question whether he himself is who he thought he was. Throughout the series, Zen has visited and will visit many different parts of Italy — so far, he’s been in Perugia, Sardinia, the Vatican City and Milan, and he’ll find himself in many other places before the series ends. In each of these, he’s more or less an outsider but never more so than in the city he used to think of as home.

Cosi Fan Tutti (1996)

His next stop is Naples, where he has requested an effective demotion to running the harbour police station. After his experiences in Venice, Zen has given up. He takes no interest in his work, turning up for just a few hours a day, and allows a brothel to be run out of the top floor of his police station. As he tells one of his subordinates:

“This posting has been forced on me as the least of various evils on offer, but I do not feel the slightest degree of professional involvement or responsibility. I am sure that you and your colleagues are perfectly capable of carrying out your duties in a satisfactory manner, and my only wish is to leave you free to do so without interference or supervision. In short, just pretend I’m not here, and carry on as you always have done.” (Cosi Fan Tutti, p. 15)

An ostensibly terrorist group calling itself “Clean Streets” (Strade Pulite) has snatched three leading figures in organized crime off the streets and thrown them into stolen garbage trucks where they are crushed to death. Zen is unwittingly instrumental in the eventual capture of these supposed terrorists, and the Questore praises him, pretending that Zen’s assignment to the city had all along been part of an undercover operation. Zen knows that this part isn’t true, but assumes that the rest of what the Questore has said is accurate — until two undercover antimafia agents put him right:

“The terrorists never existed. The group calling itself Strade Pulite was simply one element in a classic power struggle between opposing wings of the Vallifuoco clan, cleverly disguised as a political movement. The young guard wanted to purge the old leadership, as well as various of their associates and clients who knew too much and could prove an embarrassment in the new judicial climate.” (Cosi Fan Tutti, pp. 239–40)

The regular police have been trying to play down the need for the antimafia directorate, and by supporting the Questore’s “terrorist” narrative, Zen has played into their hands. The two undercover agents, frustrated in their investigation, have requested to be returned to normal duties. Not for the first time, Zen has done more harm than good.

A Long Finish (1998)

At least in Naples, he had been passive, causing damage through inadvertence. In the next book, he is actively and positively malevolent, and finally succeeds in framing the wrong person. The plot of this novel echoes that of Vendetta. A sadistic murder has been committed, evidently motivated by personal hatred, and powerful people want the main suspect — the victim’s son — out of jail, so Zen is sent to Alba, a small town in Piedmont, to see that this happens. The dead man had been one of Italy’s leading winemakers, and Zen’s controllers want the son to be in a position to finish making that year’s vintage.

Zen adopts a heavy-handed approach, effectively railroading his suspects. The local police chief is not impressed by his methods:

“I’m not trying to tell you how to do your job, Dottor Zen. Maybe your approach is standard procedure at Criminalpol. I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that you’ve been interviewing individuals without a lawyer present, telling each a different story, and then doing a deal with one of them, in exchange for a piece of supposed evidence whose value and authenticity we have no chance to evaluate. And now you tell me that you’re going to invent a pack of lies and use them to get a confession out of someone who wasn’t even a suspect until now.” (A Long Finish, pp. 322–3)

Zen gets his confession, which is false, and the truth doesn’t come out until after he has packed up and returned to Rome. He has taken this ruthless approach largely because he’s been told that his next posting will be to Sicily whatever happens, but given to understand that a favourable result in Piedmont will mean that he’ll be assigned to a safer position, less exposed to danger than might otherwise be the case.

Blood Rain (1999)

In the event, he is sent to Catania on the eastern coast of that island, near mount Etna, where his job is to act as liaison for the civil police with the antimafia directorate — in effect, to report to his superiors in the former body on what the latter are not including in their official reports.

While he was in Alba, he had met a young woman named Carla Arduini, who believed she was his daughter. Zen didn’t remember Carla’s mother but accepted that he might have been the young woman’s father, so he arranged a speedy DNA test. The result established that he was not related to Carla, but he had impulsively lied to her and told her that she was, in fact, his offspring. Now, Carla is also in Catania. Her employers have the contract to install communications software in the fortified police station there, which houses both the regular police and the antimafia unit. Carla volunteers for this job, with the aim of getting to know her father better.

So, when Carla is murdered while driving to Taormina for the weekend with a judge who has inadvisedly evaded her bodyguard, Zen’s lie is partly to blame: Carla wouldn’t have been in Sicily but for him. Zen figures out that the Mafia was not behind the killings and that the judge was not the main target:

“She was just an extra, a little ham on the bread, as they say. But it was very helpful to them, because it enabled them to make the operation look like a typical Mafia hit, and so disguise the identity of the real target” (Blood Rain, p. 314).

Carla had been the intended victim, not merely collateral damage. She had spotted an intrusion into the system she was installing, and believed she could identify the intruders, who therefore had reason to want her dead. Unfortunately, Zen, who has also just lost his mother, isn’t able to do anything with this knowledge. While he’s coming back from a meeting with an ageing mafia leader, Don Gaspare, a bomb goes off under the car that Zen is travelling in.

And Then You Die (2002)

The next book is (at 174 pages) the shortest in the series, and reads like a coda to Blood Rain. Zen is recovering from the injuries he sustained in the explosion and getting ready to testify in the United States, in the trial of two brothers whom he can identify, having spent time in their company when they “met his plane” in Sicily before bringing him to Don Gaspare. People are being killed while occupying the spaces where Zen is supposed to be. It’s obvious that somebody is trying to kill him, presumably the Mafia, to prevent him from giving evidence. But, once again, the obvious motive proves to be misleading. The person who in fact wants Zen dead is a former carabiniere named Lessi, and he eventually confronts Zen in the home of the latter’s new love, Gemma.

Lessi confirms that he and his partner, Alfredo Ferraro (whom Zen shot dead while he was strangling an informant in Blood Rain), killed Carla and the judge, and Lessi had ordered the planting of the explosives that injured Zen. Zen kills Lessi by shooting him three times with his own gun, which Zen has wrested from him. Gemma thinks this is clearly self-defence and wants to call the police, but Zen dissuades her. Lessi made no secret of the fact that he intended to kill Zen but he was not an immediate threat at the moment when Zen shot him. Zen is therefore guilty of homicide, though that’s not quite how he puts it to Gemma, who agrees to help him dispose of Lessi’s body at sea.

This is Zen’s nadir, morally speaking: from here the only way is up and I’m pleased to say that that’s (broadly) the direction he takes in the remaining three books of the series. I’m going to postpone discussion of Medusa (2003) and Back to Bologna (2005) for now, as this post is already considerably longer than usual. There are interesting things to be said about both of them but those interesting things are peripheral to my argument here.

End Games (2007)

I’ll have more to say about the last book on another occasion too. In it, Zen has been sent to Calabria, an impoverished region in the far south of Italy. Perhaps paradoxically, Zen finds the countryside beautiful but the experience of living there dispiriting:

“It depresses me. Not so much the gory details like this atrocity. It’s more the sense of a generalised and ineradicable sadness about the place, despite its natural beauty.” (End Games, p. 92)

When asked by an old woman, a current witness and long-ago murderer, whether his mother wanted him to be a priest, Zen replies that he had no vocation, then thinks the better of it.

But I do have a vocation, Zen thought. It’s this stupid, meaningless, utterly compromised job that I try to do as well as I can. (End Games, p. 274)

The book and the series end with Zen waiting for a train back to Rome (from where he’ll return to the home he now shares with Gemma in Lucca). His last operation has been criticized, his “precipitate actions in a complex situation demanding the greatest sensitivity and local knowledge” having led to “the tragic and disastrous outcome” (pp. 330–31) of two deaths. One of the dead men was a vicious and dangerous, drug-crazed sadist who had, among other atrocities, sliced out the tongue of a 9-year-old boy who had innocently spoken to the police, and kneecapped the boy’s father, permanently disabling the only breadwinner of an already poor family. The other had planned kidnappings which, among other things, had helped to keep the first in business.

And, in many other ways, the operation was a success: arrests were made, confessions obtained and the original mystery — why a kidnapped American lawyer had his head blown off in what looked like a strange ritual — satisfactorily explained. But Zen, the outsider, would never be given credit for that. In the end, he has arrived back where he was at the time of the Moro kidnapping: doing his job as it ought to be done and getting no thanks for it, only blame. And now he’s almost 25 years older.

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 24-Nov-2021.