Michael Dibdin’s police detective Aurelio Zen has been transformed from the hardboiled detective of his early novels to a comic character and back to a hard edged detective working in a corrupt system. It is hard to know exactly who the good guys are in Blood Rain. Sometimes, you are not even sure which side of good and evil Zen falls on.
There is little comedy in Blood Rain as Zen works with a division on the government tracking the Sicilian Mafia. While posted to Sicily, Zen is distracted by his dying mother in Rome and trying to understand the complicated loyalties that exist in Sicily. He pays far more attention to these things than his daughter Carla, a computer programmer. For someone, like Zen who by his own description is a “Luddite” there is little he can understand about her work. As becomes clear, he should have paid more attention.
Dibdin’s books are not traditional detective novels. They are well-crafted and beautifully written but you do not always get a nicely resolved ending. In Blood Rain you are also subjected to a less than perfect picture of Italy. This is not the Italy of good food, fine wine and beautiful churches. It would seem that there is more to Ragusa than what the tourists see. Many writers of Italian mysteries, Dibdin, Camilieri and Leon to name a few persist in trying to show us an Italy that is not all sparkling sun shining on the Ligurian Sea.
Dibdin’s early Aurelio Zen novels (Ratking, Vendetta, Cabal, Dead Lagoon) established the Rome policeman as perhaps the quintessential world-weary European cop: trapped in a corrupt organization, willing to ride with it, but unable to keep himself from antagonizing the bureaucrats around him. What these books deliver is a uniquely hard-edged, no-holds-barred cynicism–light years from the squishy idealism lurking beneath the hard-boiled exteriors of most American detectives. Then the tone of the series changed dramatically, as Dibdin sent Zen on road trips, first to Naples (Cosi Fan Tutti) and then to Piedmont (A Long Finish). In these provincial settings, Zen took on an almost-comic persona; the hard edge was still detectable but only beneath a veneer of opera buffa. This time Dibdin is on the road again, posted to Sicily, but in the heart of organized crime the comic tone disappears, and the world-weary cynicism returns with a vengeance. Zen’s nominal assignment, spying on the State Police’s anti-Mafia operation for the rival Interior Ministry, is another example of corruption at work, and soon enough, he blunders into a lethal crossfire of power-hungry politicians, bureaucrats, and crime bosses. When his mother dies a suspicious death in Rome, and the woman he considers his daughter is killed in Sicily, Zen must ask himself a familiar question: Will finding the truth only make matters worse? Dibdin has devised all sorts of ironic approaches to this fundamental question, but his answers always amount to yes and no. This time the ambiguity takes on a new and even darker twist, as we are left to ponder whether the surprise ending transforms Zen’s last words (“At least we’re alive”) into the bitterest of ironies. Crime fiction at its multifaceted best.