Michael Dibdin was born in 1947. He went to school in Northern Ireland, and later to Sussex University and the University of Alberta in Canada. After completing his first novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in 1978, he spent four years in Italy teaching English at the University of Perugia. His second novel, A Rich Full Death, was published in 1986. It was followed by Ratking in 1988, which won the Gold Dagger Award for the Best Crime Novel of the year and introduced us to his Italian detective - Inspector Aurelio Zen. This was the novel that would elevate Dibdin in the crime fiction world as a bright new voice.
In 1989 The Tryst was published to great acclaim and was followed by Vendetta in 1990, the second story in the Zen series. Dirty Tricks was Dibdin’s next novel, a standalone novel that re-created Thatcher’s Britain of the 80’s and in my opinion, one of Dibdin’s best.
Inspector Zen made his third appearance in Cabal, which was published in 1992. Not following normal convention, Dibdin released his next novel, The Dying of the Light, an Agatha Christie pastiche, in 1993. His fourth Zen novel, Dead Lagoon, was published the following year. Dibdin then wrote Dark Spectre in 1995, a serial killer thriller based not in Italy, but the USA. This novel dealt with a Cult and seemingly unconnected killings. Two more Zen novels followed: Cosi Fan Tutti, set in Naples, was published in 1996 and A Long Finish was published in 1998. Blood Rain, the seventh Zen novel, was published in 1999. Thanksgiving, a short novel dealt with grief and loss combined with the supernatural.
However, after Thanksgiving Dibdin then brought forth four more Zen novels to conclude his output during his lifetime. And Then You Die, (2002). Aurelio Zen returned in Medusa, (2003), and then again in Back to Bologna (2005). After a short illness Dibdin passed away at the early age of sixty. His last novel, End Games, was published posthumously in 2007. Having settled in Seattle with his wife and author, K. K. Beck, Dibdin left behind two daughters from his two previous marriages and three stepchildren.
‘Ratking’ introduced Aurelio Zen to the world. With his first foray with his main protagonist who was to give Dibdin his entrance in the Hall of Fame in crime fiction, ‘Ratking’ also won the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel.
Even though we are currently enjoying the series of Zen – I believe that this series is timely. There is always the fear that a writer can be quickly forgotten when they have died. Although they have their staunch fans, unless sales continue then the books fall out of print. Only a handful of authors are published many years after their death – Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh are but a few of those authors. Authors who were big names in their heyday have now dropped in to obscurity – some remembered by us few, the faithful book collector.
So, Zen in the form of Rufus Sewell has shown up in the nick of time to trumpet Dibdin’s marvellous novels. And they were novels. As with all readers, I didn’t always like his output. I remember reading ‘Thanksgiving’ when it first came out. For me it was an arduous read for such a slim novel. Again, I wasn’t taken by ‘The Dying of the Light’, another slim novel, a pastiche of Christie. But for me, when the man got it right – he got it so right he was a shinning light and the sensation of reading his books has stayed with me.
My first meeting with Dibdin was ‘Dirty Tricks’ in the early 1990’s. With Thatcher’s Britain still fresh in my mind this was an astounding novel – well written and emotionally provoking. The same can be said for ‘The Last Sherlock Holmes Story’ which has hovered in my Top Ten Crime Novels of all time. Again, the writing is sublime and the angst of Watson and the denouement will always stay with me.
You can feel that Dibdin was passionate about what he wrote. Even re-reading ‘Ratking’, you can tell that he had a passion for Italy, for the beauty and the ugliness of the land and its people - for the injustices of the courts and the greed of men in power. In ‘Ratking’, Dibdin brings these facets to play when a man of power, Ruggiero Miletti is kidnapped. As the kidnappers demand payment his family squabble as to the amount of the settlement. As everyone has their own agenda, the kidnapping is buried under lies, subterfuge and their own interests. Is the return of Miletti such a good thing for his children and other people?
From reading ‘Ratking’ you can see that Dibdin brought a different dimension to the crime novel. Although always well written, his novels can sometimes feel dense, but with the Zen novels Dibdin excels and delivers a plot that can never fail to satisfy. He wasn’t conventional, but then again neither was Zen himself. I am simply pleased that Dibdin is being re-discovered by new readers, and I am certain that Zen’s star is in the ascendancy right now.
Reviewed by: C.S.