Zen and the art of crime

<strong>End Games</strong>

Michael Dibdin <em>Faber & Faber, 356pp, £12.99</em>

End games is right. Michael Dibdin died back in March, just nine days into his 60th year, so unless Faber & Faber does a Jonathan Cape and hires someone else to carry on the franchise (as Kingsley Amis was brought in to keep the fires of the late Ian Fleming burning), this is the last we shall see of Dibdin's Italian detective Aurelio Zen. The trouble is that Amis is dead, too. And since Dibdin's late style - "He paid over the agreed fee and responded with a brief nod to the waiter's thanks, nicely pitched as always in the grey area between grudging respect and overt truculence" - owes so much to that of early Amis, he would have been the most credible contender for the Zen concession.

If that last phrase sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum doorstopper, then rest easy: a less Ludlum-like writer than Dibdin there could not be. Ruth Rendell aside, no English writer has done more to expose the workings of the illusory barricade between crime fiction and literature.

Here is Zen leaving the restaurant manned by that truculent waiter: "The moment he emerged from the air-conditioned dining room into the sullen, stacked heat of the street, he felt his pores gaping open like the mouth of the goldfish he had kept as a child. He lit a cigarette and surveyed the visible slice of sky, an incandescent azure enlivened by puffy, faintly bruised clouds trailing translucent spumes of virga." And here is a minor stooge in an earlier Zen novel, Dead Lagoon (1994): "A ragged line of geese passed overhead, silhouetted against the caul of high cirrus, heading out towards the open sea. Over towards Marghera, a bloated sun subsided into a dense bank of smog, dwarfing the striped stacks of the refineries. Giacomo noted the rippled layers of cloud spreading across the sky like wash from a motorboat." You don't get skies like that in The Icarus Agenda.

That excellent canopy - the air - bulked so large in Dibdin's vision because he saw its phoney colours and vaporous forms as meta phors for the imaginary Italy non-Italians are in love with. Dibdin loved it himself, but he knew it was a fantasy and he was too honest a writer to let fantasies shape his dreams. Not for him the Forsterian lie about the contented contadini chirpily chewing cheese atop the sun-drenched hills of il paese bello. In End Games, even the trusty Italian tomato is held up as an emblem of nationalistic self-deception:

The Spanish had introduced the tomato from their American empire to their dominions in southern Italy, where it grew like a weed. The historic waves of Italian emigrants from the south had virtually subsisted on this cheap and abundant foodstuff, whose appearance conveniently recalled the images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which hung on their walls . . . They had adopted it as a symbol of their cultural heritage and identity and then sold it to the credulous foreigners among whom they lived as the very essence of Italian cuisine.

Even if he'd not written policiers, his Italy would still have been a land of cheats and chisellers.

But are Dibdin's novels policiers? For a top cop, Aurelio Zen has a curious habit of greedily itemising everything about whatever part of Italy he has been assigned to while managing to miss pretty much anything relevant to the case he is working on. Which is a way of saying that you don't come to Zen for plot. I have read End Games twice (and am now halfway through it again), but just as with the ten other entries in the series I couldn't really give you a summary of the action. This time around, Zen finds himself in Calabria, where an American lawyer has been kidnapped, there has been a hideous murder, and an ebullient Zeffirelli- esque movie-maker is in town to make a film of the Book of Revelations. As for the rest, as they say, go figure.

If it's plot you want, try Dirty Tricks (1991) - one of Dibdin's non-Zen novels and just possibly his masterpiece. In essence, the book is a light-hearted parody of the work of James M Cain - Double Indemnity meets Kind Hearts and Coronets. But as well as being the funniest book written in English in the past 30 years, it is also the novel that best understands how we all of us conspired with Good Queen Maggie to create a country quite as fantastical as anything the Italians inhabit. Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up!, published three years later, analysed the same territory, but where Coe angrily tried to stake out some moral high ground, Dibdin was bemusingly honest about the seductive compromises served up by Thatcherism. Like Zen, he saw through to the politics in everything. True, in the years before his own death Dibdin had been trying to kill off his hero. But I have a feeling that Zen will be with us a while yet.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Why Boris and London deserve each other