After my third Aurelio Zen mystery, by the late Michael Dibdin, I've decided that I really don't like our hero much. In Cabal (First Vintage Crime, 2000; originally pub. 1992) Zen presents as insecure, self-absorbed, and occasionally clueless (a particularly stinging rebuke when considering a police detective, but he is! Even I could see that switcheroo with the Milanese politician a mile away.) Zen completely misreads his girlfriend, the fabulous Tania Biacis (perfectly played by the gorgeous Caterina Moreti in the otherwise less-than-stellar PBS version). He agrees wholeheartedly to whatever the powerful Vatican types ask. He tries to be corrupt, and isn't even particularly good at that. I'm having a hard time understanding what Tania sees in him.
But I'm coming to the conclusion that for me, the Zen stories are not really about Zen. The writing is occasionally beyond good, into extraordinary. Consider this excerpt from the opening scene in St. Peter's basilica:
"At first the noise sounded like electronic feedback transmitted via the loudspeakers, then the screech of a low-flying aircraft. One or two departing tourists glanced up toward the looming obscurity of the done, as the man with the suede jacket and gold chain and the woman in the tweed coat and white scarf had been doing all along. That certainly seemed to be the source of the eerie sound, somewhere between a whine and a growl, that billowed down to fill the basilica like colored dye in a tank of water. Then someone caught sight of the apparition high above, and screamed. The priest faltered, and even the congregation twisted around to see what was happening. In utter silence all watched the black shape tumbling through the dim expanses toward them.
The sight was an inkblot test for everyone's secret fears and fantasies. An arthritic seamstress who lived alone in an automobile body shop in the Borgo Pio saw the long-desired angel swooping down to release her from her torments of the flesh. A retired chemist from Potenza, on the other hand, visiting the capital for only the second time in his life, recalled the earthquake that had recently devastated his own city and saw a chunk of the dome plummeting down, first token of a general collapse. Others thought confusedly of spiders or bats, superhero stunts or circus turns. Only one observer knew precisely what was happening, having seen it all before. Giovanni Grimaldi let go of the nun's bouquet of flowers, which scattered on the marble floor, and reached for his two-way radio.
Subsequent calculations demonstrated that the period of time elapsing between the initial sighting and terminal impact cannot have exceeded four seconds, but to those watching in disbelief and growing horror it was a period without duration, time free. The figure might have been falling through a medium infinitely more viscous than air, so slowly did it appear to descend, revolving languidly about its own axis, the long sustained keening wrapped around it like winding robes, the limbs and trunk executing a leisurely saraband that ended as the body smashed headfirst into the marble paving at something approaching seventy miles per hour." (5-6)
Great, huh? So, Zen is brought in for a discreet investigation to confirm that this is nothing more than another jumper in the basilica, an unfortunately not uncommon occurrence in the heart of the Catholic Church. Of COURSE this is no suicide. There will be a few more deaths and some connections to decaying Italian nobility, not to mention reference to the Knights of Malta and a side-trip into high fashion, before we get it all sorted out. And the revelations at the end, while not expected, are surprisingly satisfying.
Of course what really draws me to the Zen stories are their setting - Rome mostly, but other parts of Italy too. Dibdin sets the scene with convincing authority, and his discussions of the rampant corruption - serious and not so much - and general incomprehensibility of Italian bureaucracy add an edginess that tempers the otherwise too-picturesque stage. Here he is on public transportation:
"In Piazza della Republica [we are in Milan right now] Zen boarded a two-coach orange tram marked 'Porta Vittoria.' A notice above the large wooden-framed windows set out in considerable detail the conditions governing the transport of live fish and fowl. Goldfish and chicks, Zen learned, would be conveyed (up to a maximum of two per passenger) providing the containers, which might under no circumstances be larger than 'a normal parcel or a shoebox,' were neither rough nor splintery, dirty nor foul-smelling, nor yet of such a form as to cause injury to other passengers. The remainder of the text, which laid down the penalities for flauting [sic] these regulations, was too small to read with the naked eye, but the implication was that any anarchistic hothead who took it upon himself to carry goldfish or chicks on trams without due regard for the provisions heretofore mentioned would be prosecuted with the full rigor of the law." (211)
You have to think that Dibdin came up on just such a notice while riding a tram in Milan one day and said to himself "I have GOT to use that." Zen, recalling a recent conflict with some Japanese tourists regarding a taxi, suggests that "If they really want to understand Italy, they could do worse than give up taxis, take to public transport, and ponder the mysteries of a system that legislated for circumstances verging on the surreal while yet unable to ensure that the majority of its users even bought a ticket." (211)
I don't think I've read a better summary of Italy than this.