I really did go from reading a novel called King Rat to a novel called Ratking. Only the first one featured actual rats.
The Plot: A political misstep years before left Aurelio Zen finishing out his career in the Italian police at a desk job in Rome, so he is surprised to be suddenly summoned to active duty in a Perugian kidnapping case. As soon as he arrives in Perugia, it becomes clear that there is more going on than meets the eye; the head of the rich and powerful Miletti family has been missing for months, and his squabbling children have stopped cooperating with the police. It is up to Zen search for the truth, navigating though a dangerous terrain that includes bribery, blackmail, a storm of political pressure, and a fog of family secrets that might be concealing the kidnappers themselves.
The author: Michael Dibdin was raised in England and Ireland. He taught in Perugia, Italy for four years before turning to crime writing. Ratking is the first of his eleven novels about Italian detective Aurelio Zen (the last, End Games, was published posthumously). Dibdin also wrote seven novels outside the Zen series. He died in Seattle, Washington in 2007.
Why It’s Awesome: Dibdin writes very evocatively about the Italian landscape and people. His time spent in Italy is obvious from the intimate descriptions of the scenery, food, and city life. A novel written in English, but set in Italy and from an Italian’s point of view is a rare find, and I enjoyed this window into Mediterranean life.
The descriptions of the characters are similarly minute and well-developed, from the overly fashionable Cinzia to Italian-cum-Englishman Pietro. There is a sinister cast to all the Milettis which works well and keeps the reader’s suspicions bouncing from one to the others. Zen is an enjoyable character to root for, at once cynically pessimistic and determined to expose the truth if he possibly can. He is an unusual hero in that he lives with his mother, has no pretensions of glamor or daring, and is already old enough to be looking toward his retirement.
Why It’s Not Awesome: At times the writing style of this novel has that odd cast often found in translations (I actually checked to make sure it was originally written in English), and that’s a good description of the book as a whole. Enjoyable as Dibdin’s Italian details are, he takes for granted a certain knowledge of Italian inner politics and attitudes that I, at least, do not possess. The difference, for example, between the local Carabinieri and the state police force was not well explained. All of the characters, especially those on the police force, seem deeply affected by political currents and pressures which are not spoken of aloud. It gives them an air of mystery, but to an American reader makes it almost impossible to keep track of who is on Zen’s side and why.
Zen himself is likeable enough, but his personal back story gets little attention. His mother and girlfriend figure into the story in brief snippets, appearing suddenly to remind the reader they exist and then disappearing before we can really start to care about them. Zen’s relationship with his girlfriend in particular seems to be on the rocks, but without any examples of an untroubled interaction it’s difficult to see why he cares.
The Milettis themselves prove somewhat over-complicated. There are four children, one spouse, and one unusually close secretary, and every character’s relationship with each of the others seems to have layers of meaning and intent lurking beneath the surface. Keeping track of who is plotting against whom and why becomes dizzying. This my have been forgivable when weighed against a neat and satisfying ending, but personally at least I found myself wanting more from the conclusion than I was given.
A Note About the TV Show: In 2011, the BBC did an adaptation of three of the Zen novels, starring Rufus Sewell as Zen. They made some major changes to the original material, and while I’m always loathe to recommend the a show over a book, I thought it was very well-done and much, much easier to understand.
The Final Judgment: Interesting characters in an overly-confusing plot. Might be easier to understand if you already know something about 1980s Italian inner politics.