The sad news coming out of Seattle, Washington, today is that Michael Dibdin, the 60-year-old author of an award-winning series starring Venetian detective Aurelio Zen (Back to Bologna) died there last Friday, March 30, after what Britain’s Telegraph says was “a short illness.”
Of both generous size and tone, the Telegraph’s obituary of Dibdin, who was born in Wolverhampton, England, in March 1947, but has lived in the United States since the early ’90s, is the best one I’ve seen yet. As it explains:
Dibdin combined a flair for complex plotting and biting characterisation with a mastery of satire and the surreal.
In all he produced 16 novels, 11 of them featuring Zen, and his work was translated into 18 languages. With popular success came critical acclaim: “During the Nineties,” noted the legal commentator Marcel Berlins, “no writer of crime fiction attracted as much praise, and gave as much enjoyment, as Michael Dibdin.”
His trademark was the multi-layered literary whodunnit, couched in prose that his contemporary Val McDermid described as “limpid and extraordinary”; another admirer concluded that Dibdin remained “one of an elite cadre of crime fiction writers for whom literary critics break out all of their favourite adjectives”.
Dibdin deliberately tapped into British middle-class fantasies in the Aurelio Zen series. The appeal of the books lay partly in his decision to set each one in a different part of Italy (starting in the beautiful medieval city of Perugia), but also in the character of Zen himself: Dibdin invented him as an outsider, coming to Perugia as a stranger, much as Didbin himself had done when he arrived to teach English at the university there in the late 1970s.
Aurelio Zen’s initials offered a clue to his creator’s methods and motives; in the course of the series, Dibdin pieced together an A to Z of contemporary Italy, a composite of finely-drawn observations about the country and its people. The picture he painted, however, was no rose-tinted idyll: his tenth Zen mystery, Back to Bologna (2005), opened with a football club tycoon slumped dead over the wheel of his Audi, a bullet in his brain and a Parmesan cheese knife rammed through his chest.
Dibdin was an outsized figure with outsized traits and appetites; he had a fondness for fine food and drink, and liked to sport a Panama hat (“he embraces excess”, one observer wrote). Although in person he was private and shy, his books were larded with sex and violence–“two of the things we can do,” Dibdin noted, “which were not possible for earlier generations [of writers], so there’s an understandable tendency to want to take it to the max”.
Although his plots were convoluted (“as tangled as a dish of spag bol,” as one reviewer put it), Dibdin was a thoughtful exponent of crime fiction with a literary cast, specialising in unsympathetic heroes (someone noted that Aurelio Zen is not a man with whom one would want to be marooned in a gondola), and he took an academic interest in the history of the genre.
As for politics, Dibdin was careful not to taint his narratives with an identifiable ideology, but he believed that a wider political lens was not only essential to telling criminal tales but also unavoidable. He admired Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom were Left-leaning and disturbed by the corruption and abuses they saw in the society they wrote about. Like them, Dibdin shunned an overt political agenda in his books. “They exposed problems,” Dibdin said of them, “they didn’t propose solutions.”
The Telegraph piece goes on to quote Dibdin on the reason he devoted his novel-writing career to crime fiction: “The mainstream has lost its way. Crime fiction is an objective, realistic genre because it’s about the real world, real bodies really being killed by somebody. And this involves the investigator in trying to understand the society that the person lived in.”
Dibdin’s first published novel, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, was The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978). It was followed 10 years later by Ratking, the first of his Commissario Zen crime novels, which won the Macallan Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award. “Other books in this series,” The Telegraph notes, “include two of his best titles, Cabal (1992), which was awarded the French Grand Prix du Roman Policier, and Dead Lagoon (1994). Cosi Fan Tutti (1996), a brutal exposé of Italian organised crime and a brilliantly funny pastiche of Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera buffa, was followed by A Long Finish (1998) and Blood Rain (1999), in which Zen faced death at the hands of the Sicilian Mafia.” In addition to his Italian series, Dibdin wrote standalones such as Dark Spectre (1995), which was set in an American town traumatized by an apparently random set of killings, and Thanksgiving (2000), about a journalist fixated on the recent death of his wife.
Back to Bologna was Dibdin’s most recent title, but he has an 11th (and probably last) Zen novel, End Games, due out in the UK in July and in the States in November.
I had the opportunity to talk with Michael Dibdin only once, shortly after the publication in 1997 of The Vintage Book of Classic Crime, a rather curious literary sampler he’d edited. He was by then living in rainy Seattle, after meeting (at a 1993 writers’ conference in Spain) and then marrying local mystery author Kathrine Beck (aka K.K. Beck). I found Dibdin to be a bit gruff at first, delivering clipped responses that he evidently believed would be quite sufficient for an interviewer with no more than passing interest in crime fiction. After we’d spent a good while talking about his work and the genre at a coffee shop in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square district, though, he realized that I was no general assignment reporter, but instead had a longtime interest in the very variety of story to which he had devoted himself. We then carried on for another hour or so, exchanging the names of favorite recent books and talking about some of the acknowledged giants and lesser-known stars of this genre, many of whose work figured into his Vintage collection. We promised to get together again someday, but never did.
My January Magazine colleague Linda L. Richards had a similar experience when she sat down to interview him in 1999. In the resulting article, she wrote:
In person Michael Dibdin’s warmth is not immediately apparent. There is, at first, almost a shyness to our exchange: perhaps a caution. This is the slightly self-protective, intensely private Dibdin who–when he married Seattle writer and single mom Kathrine Beck …–acquired the house next door to hers in order to have a peaceful nest where he could spin his yarns.Dibdin does warm, though. He has the sort of passion for his work and his genre that doesn’t allow distance in discussion that he finds interesting. Before long, his self-protection is abandoned and his eyes sparkle with interest and intelligence as he discusses his work and his passions.
Regrettably, such encounters are now no longer possible.
Blogger-mystery maven Sarah Weinman remarks that Dibdin’s demise is a “huge blow to the crime fiction world and to literature at large.” I’m sure that much more will be expressed about Dibdin’s loss in days to come. He demonstrated crime fiction’s potential for making sense of the world, at the same as it entertains. Can literature expect to do any more than that?