Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Here's the thing about Michael Dibdin's Vendetta (Vintage Crime, ed. 1998), the second Aurelio Zen mystery:  it isn't actually that much about the crime that Zen is reviewing when the story starts.  It is nominally, and there is a vendetta there, but Zen may also be subject of one, or maybe of several vendettas himself, depending on you read his office's politics and personal life.  The plot layering in this novel is a bit like a sfogliatelle - you wonder if you can keep track of all those leaves, but they stick around like little crumbs in your consciousness well after you've finished the book.  I found this frustrating at the time of reading, but now having finished, it makes quite a bit of sense.  And in fact, Vendetta's bare-bones plotting on each of these is reminiscent of Andrea Cammilleri - nothing extraneous, and you'd better pay attention or you'll miss the key detail.

He's a pretty unhappy fellow is our Zen, in an almost Nordic-crime kind of way, but he doesn't Wallander in it.  And he's Italian for godssake so at least he is stylish about it, although I don't see him as a sfogliatelle kind of guy.  Coffee is his thing:

"Across the street from the newsstand, at the corner of the next block, was the cafe which Zen frequented, largely because it had resisted the spreading blight of skimmed milk, which had reduced the rich foam of a proper cappucino to an insipid froth.  The barman, whose face sported a luxuriant moustache to compensate for his glossily bald skull, greeted Zen with respectful warmth."

I'm never ordering a skim cappucino again. 

Part of the reason that I like crime fiction set elsewhere than the US, is the obvious escapist factor.  Somehow it's just better on the Palatine Hill (there's a great quiet but nervy scene here where Zen uses the Palatine ruins to lose a tail).  But the REALLY good stuff also washes away any sentimental romance you may hold for a place.  Case in point with Vendetta:  Sardinia.  I've always thought it looked lovely, kind of like a more cosmopolitan Corsica, which I loved.  But this story bypasses the glamorous Costa Smeralda for a harsh, non-touristed, arid, and terribly dangerous interior, where your life isn't worth much and no one will particularly care if it ends.  I'm re-thinking Sardinia now, too. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

The September Society

I've been bouncing around a bit - temporally and geographically - in recent weeks.  After an aborted start, I did finally sink into the plush surroundings of Charles Finch's The September Society (Minotaur Books, 2008), featuring that posh but practical Victorian sleuth, Charles Lenox.  This time, Finch takes us back and forth between the environs of Grosvenor Square and the university town of Lenox's youth, Oxford.  Oh the names that are dropped - the Turf, the Bear, the Lamb and Flag; Lincoln, Queen's, Balliol; the Sheldonian, the Ashmolean, and of course the Bod(leian) - yet despite all of this Lenox manages to remain a reasonably accesible man of his time, largely due to his liberal politics.  His love of England, Queen, and Empire are not enough to blind him to egregious injustices perpetrated by the villains at the heart of this story (missing students, hysterical mothers, nefarious societies), so Finch neatly succeeds in avoiding most of the icky stuff of the height of British empire and gives us Anglophiles what we want.  Which is a loyal retainer, an intellectual puzzle, and a cup of tea on a rainy day:

"'Has she said why she's come, Graham?'
'No, sir.  Though I might venture to say that her ladyship seems agitated,'
'Very well,' Lenox said with a sigh.  'It's a bit of a bother.  Do giver her some tea, though, won't you?  And I'd like a cup myself.  I'll be down as soon as I can.'
After the butler left, Lenox went to the west window of his bedroom, which stretched from his knees to the ceiling.  Outside there was a dense fog, thought he could make out a few figures on Hampden Lane, heads bowed, on late errands of mercy and menace.  The sound of wet leaves dropping from the trees made its way to him.  And a small smile crept onto his face.  A cup of tea, and who knew what after that?  Another case in play, and all the better that it came at this hour.  These late ones were often the most interesting."  (p. 20)

Suffice it to say that a similarly small smile of satisfaction creeps across this reader's face when settling in here, especially if it is cold and rainy out. 

All that said, there really isn't anything terribly gripping about this particular story.  One might even say that it drags a wee bit, until the very end.  Perhaps it is the slower pace of late 19th c. investigation, or Lenox's endless stoic pining over his ladylove, or maybe just the cushy surroundings that cause one to nap instead of reading on.