I first learned about Michael Dibdin and the Aurelio Zen series whilst perusing Men’s Journal in the library one day. Having just finished the Stieg Larsson trilogy, and thoroughly enjoyed it (mostly), I was excited to read of some Larsson read-a-likes. The fact that Dibdin situates his novels in Italy was also part of the appeal, especially considering my obsession with all things Italian. I was, therefore, doubly determined to get my hands on this series.
The first book, Ratking, was by no means disappointing. As is typical of noir crime, Police Commissioner Aurelio Zen is a burdened man: smoking and drinking too much, with a multitude of family and girlfriend-related woes. An Italian Rebus without the self-loathing and the high moral ground, he has no qualms about using under-handed methods to get what he needs.
Due to having seen too much during the investigation into the kidnapping of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978, Zen is disgraced and reassigned from his hometown, Venice, to a boring desk job in Rome. Years later he is reinstated to head up an investigative team in Perugia when powerful industrialist, Ruggiero Miletti, is kidnapped. Resented by the local constabulary, judiciary and Miletti’s family, Zen is used and abused as he tries to decipher the various versions of the truth he is presented with to solve the kidnapper’s identity.
A veritable rat’s nest of a family, if ever there was one, the Miletti family is a nasty piece of work and a law unto itself. There is the foppish youngest son, Daniele, with a hand in the drug trade and an insatiable obsession with fashion; the pouting, beautiful daughter, Cinzia, with a secret revealed later in the story; the sexually deviant son, Silvio, who becomes the head of the family in Ruggiero’s absence; and Pietro, the manipulative, self-serving eldest son, absent in London for the most part and, therefore, conveniently not implicated in the kidnapping. Add to this mix the family’s secretary, Ivy, a South African national who visited Italy and never went home; Gianluigi Santucci, Cinzia’s shifty husband; and the young, ambitious Public Prosecutor, Bartocci, and Zen is immersed into the unscrupulous world of the rich and powerful and is for the most part struggling to keep his head above water.
The title of the novel, Ratking is explained by Bartocci. A ratking is formed when too many rats are confined to a small space. Living in such close proximity, as many as thirty rats can become entwined by their tails, creating a knot that becomes a mass of tissue. Amazingly, the ratking survives and flourishes, somehow having come to terms with its situation, squealing madly and biting and spitting all the same. Used as a metaphor for political life in Italy and the corruption of the judicial process, Dibdin gives the reader an, at times, witty and insightful taste of Italian life and parochialism; a look at Italian culture from the inside.
Now, the slightly bad news is that although the Thunder Bay Public Library has a good number of the titles in this series and we are getting more of them shortly, Ratking is currently available only through our Inter-library loan service. This is an easy and free process, however, so don’t be deterred. If you are interested in diving into Zen’s psyche and the anomaly of Italian politics and crime, visit any branch, fill in a form, and get started. And, to kill three birds with one stone, there is the Zen Omnibus that contains the first three novels.