Two Crime Novels by Michael Dibdin


(This column was first published in the May 31, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


There are a great many mystery novelists who include a strong dose of humor in their writing. Donald Westlake is one of the very best. His Dortmunder series about a gang of bumbling thieves has a new volume, Bad News, just out but my favorite of his remains The Hot Rock, which was made into that wonderful movie with Robert Redford playing the title role.


But among detectives that make us laugh the Mediterranean climate seems to me to produce the very best. I read every Roderic Jeffries novel I can get my hands on. His Enrique Alvarez may be lazy but he is far sharper than his commander believes and the island of Mallorca provides a beautiful setting for his investigations.


A close second to Jeffries is Michael Dibdin whose Roman detective, Aurelio Zen, is one of those incompetent heroes who stumbles into the solution of crimes -- often not even realizing it when he does so. The Zen series has seven entries so far and I comment briefly on two I have recently read. (A new volume, Blood Rain, is just out.)


Here is a passage from Cosi Fan Tutti (Pantheon). Zen has come to work late and with a hangover. He hasn't even considered the case his boss calls about and has to rely on his assistant Caputo's frantic gestures to dissemble:


"'What progress have we made?'


"He eyed Caputo desperately.


"'Well, the individual responsible...'


"Caputo held up his arms, crossed at the wrist.


"' in custody...'


"Caputo ran one finger across his closed lips as though tugging at a zipper.


"'...but has so far refused to talk.'


"Caputo was now pacing up and down the floor, darting glances this way and that, one hand shading his eyes.


"'My men are conducting a thorough search of the scene...' Zen went on.


"Caputo made writing motions on the palm of his left hand.


"'...and taking detailed statements from witnesses.'


"'What leads are you working on?' demanded the Questore.


"'What leads are we working on?'


"'Must you repeat everything I say? Yes, leads! Theories, ideas, hypotheses. Something which might begin to explain this incident and which I can communicate to the Prefect for subsequent transmission to Rome.'


"Caputo stood on the other side of the desk, his arm thrust forward, holding up three fingers.


"'We are working on three main theories at the moment,' Zen replied evenly. 'The first is that the perpetrator...'


"He glanced at Caputo, who was waddling bow-legged around the room with his hands clutched like claws beside his hips.


"'...was a cowboy,' concluded Zen.


"'A what?'


"Caputo shook his head furiously. Zen covered the mouthpiece of the phone.


"'An American!' hissed Caputo.


"'...that he was an American,' Zen told the Questore. 'But the United States naval authorities have explicitly denied that he was one of their men!'


"'Exactly!' retorted Zen. 'According to this theory, the suspect was an undercover CIA agent who had been entrusted with the mission of murdering one of the Greek sailors, the son of an influential Communist politician.'


"He looked triumphantly at Caputo, who gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up.


"'And the second theory?' pursued the Questore after a pause which suggested that he was taking notes.


"'The Second...'


"Caputo had transformed himself into a smaller slighter, quicker individual moving around the room with exaggerated naturalness, glancing furtively from side to side, his hands occasionally darting out to one side or the other as though of their own accord.


"' that the man was a common pickpocket,' Zen went on,..."


Aurelio Zen may not be the man you would want chasing the criminals of western New York but he certainly deals with some mean characters in Italy.


Here is how one unseemly rural villain from A Long Finish (Pantheon) solves his rat problem:


"Minot had resorted to the poison and traps, as well as ambushing them one night and shooting a dozen or so. He had even hacked one youngster in half with a shovel in his fury. But they kept coming, until one day -- he still wasn't sure why -- he had set out some stale bread he had no further use for, unbaited this time. In the morning, it was gone. That evening he put down some more, together with a saucer of diluted milk.


"From that moment on, the attacks on his stores of seed and grain gradually diminished, then ceased altogether. It was as if he and the rats had arrived at an arrangement. Minot did not reveal this to anyone else, of course. People already thought that he was a little eccentric. If they learned that he was feeding rats, it would merely confirm their prejudices. But Minot couldn't see why rats had any less right to live than several humans he could think of, always providing that they respected him and his property, of course. After all, they only wanted to survive, like everything else. Was that too much to ask?


"It was some months before his dependants risked appearing in person before their benefactor, and, when they did, it was at first the merest glimpse caught out of the corner of the eye, a flurry in the shadows at the edge of the room, the flick of a long thin tail abruptly withdrawn. Perhaps some folk-memory of the shotgun blasts which had decimated the pack still remained, or the squeals of the baby which Minot had cut in two with his spade.


"But at length these faded, too, mere myths and old wives' tales that no one took seriously any more. The younger generation knew nothing of this house beyond the food and drink they found there every night. That was real enough; the rest just stories. So out they came, snouts twitching, red eyes alert, tails stirring like autonomous life-forms parasitic upon these parasites. Minot sat on the sofa and watched them take the nightly offering he had put down. From time to time they glanced up at him in ways he might, had he been inclined to sentimentality, have interpreted as gratitude. But Minot was a realist, and knew exactly the extent of the interest which the rats took in him. He liked it that way. Cupboard love was the one kind you could depend on.


"By now he fed his pets morning and evening, and they knew him well enough to venture up on to the sofa where he sat, even to the extent of perching on his legs and shoulders. He allowed them to scamper inquisitively about, squinting up at him and scenting the air, their whiskers keenly quivering, until he heard a car draw near and then pull up outside. With a brisk slap of his palms, he dismissed his familiars, stuffed the money which the truffles had brought him under the cushions of the sofa, and went to investigate."


And two others from Cosi Fan Tutti:


"Under pressure —- a discreet knee in the crotch, a teasing glimpse of a holstered pistol, the pitiless glint in his interlocutor's eyes —- Ciro had conceded that there was indeed a substantial discrepancy between the terms mutually agreed at the time (100,000 lire per week for six months) and the actual reimbursements which had been effected (0 lire per week for two months). But it was not him that was at fault, he protested, it was the market.


"'They promised us rich pickings once the politicians went home.' The tourists were supposed to start coming again, they said. The city was going to be a major holiday destination, its bad old reputation a thing of the past, right? You know what? It's worse than ever! Because they cracked down so hard while the big shots were here, everyone had to make up for the lost income afterwards. There was a spate of muggings, the foreign press ran scare stories and now there's almost nobody worth robbing in town! I'm sorry, Gesua, but there's only so much I can do. This is a market economy, like they say. When times are bad, we all have to tighten our belts.'"


Dibdin, meanwhile, has an eye for phrasing that is especially pleasing, for example: "The way he carried on, you'd think he'd invented love after everyone had been satisfied with shoddy imitations for the preceding thousand years."


Aurelio Zen doesn't have to be smart. He is most fortunate to have Seattle author Michael Dibdin to pull the plot and character strings.