I love a good character name. I think English author Michael Dibdin was on fire the day he came up with a Venetian detective called Aurelio Zen.
In fact the character’s name was so striking, I’d forgotten the author’s name and that I’d already read an Inspector Zen mystery. As I’m currently reading my slow way through St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and Duby’s “Age of Cathedrals” for the 501 List, I was delighted to find a quick read in “Vendetta” on my local library’s shelves.
The basic story is that Zen is given a case on Sardinia to re-investigate. A quadruple murder has taken place of a crooked property developer and friends, in his top security villa. Because of the victim’s political links, Zen needs to find a culprit that will keep the spin-doctors happy and him from being reassigned to potentially terminal Mafia territory. Meanwhile he’s being followed, a man he jailed incorrectly earlier in his career is out for blood, he’s struggling to deal with his cantankerous mother, and his growing romantic interest in a happily-married colleague isn’t making life easy.
There’s more than one vendetta at work during the plot and Dibdin does a great job of depicting the Sardinian small town attitudes towards revenge and the government. As someone who loves Italy I really enjoyed the details of Zen’s day – from his early morning coffees to the traffic in Rome. Zen’s methods, once the case gathers momentum, are inspired. He goes undercover as a Swiss property agent, loses a tail in the maze under the Forum, and manages a slow-speed chase by using gravity, rather than an engine, when his car is disabled.
However, I can’t see why this book was included on the 501 List. I read a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries and this one doesn’t stand out for me as “special”. It doesn’t introduce forensics like Cornwell or Deaver, sheer pace like Patterson, legal twists like Grisham, country house murders like Christie, or dark humour like Brookmyre. It’s a good mystery, don’t misunderstand me, but I can think of others who deserve a place on the list more.
Curious, I checked out Dibdin online and apparently he was known for revealing the corrupt underside of modern Italy and for Zen being an anti-hero. Perhaps that was fresh and new in 1990 when “Vendetta” was first published and explains his inclusion. Either way, “Vendetta” is a good read, perfect if you’re packing for an Italian holiday.
(read June 2012)