Those expecting the next instalment in the bestselling Aurelio Zen series will be surprised by Michael Dibdin's new novel, Thanksgiving, which casts off the detective format in favour of a more emotionally intense style. Anthony, a British journalist, is spiralling into despair after the sudden death of his American wife, Lucy. Haunted by her memory, he becomes obsessed with the details of his wife's life before he knew her, a fixation that not only leads him on a journey across the world, but also into trouble with the police.
Dibdin's choice of a first-person narrative causes problems in creating a credible voice for his protagonist. Dibdin (who lives in Seattle) attempts, for example, to give Anthony a realistic London accent by slipping colloquialisms such as "geezer", "squire" and "bird" into his vocabulary. The result is a frightening cross between Jim Davidson and Dick Van Dyke. But apart from his verbal eccentricity, Anthony is largely unremarkable. Lucy's ex-husband, the perverse but amusing Darryl Bob Allen, captures the reader's attention with sick one-liners, while the maudlin remarks of the main character go unnoticed.
Unintentional humour arises from Dibdin's insistence on making the novel "racy". Hardly a page goes by without reference to some kind of sexual act. On one excruciating occasion, Anthony even describes the dressing of a turkey in sexual terms.
The Zen novels are given much of their character by their Italian setting. Luxuriant descriptions of the scenery, food and culture provide a rich backdrop to the tightly plotted action. Apart from several uninspiring descriptions of the Nevada desert, Thanksgiving lacks the texture of the author's previous work. Here, the sparse, unelaborate prose leaves the tone rather flat.
Thanksgiving does not fully explore its themes of love, sex, death and the power of the past. Dibdin's efforts to transcend the detective genre lead to confusion. The novel is an uncertain combination of love story, thriller, ghost tale, and even road narrative. Paradoxically, in the end, Dibdin defines himself more emphatically as no more than a crime writer.