Show us the night

Michael Gorra

  • A Long Finish by Michael Dibdin
    Faber, 249 pp, £16.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 571 19341 2

‘There is nothing new to be said ... but the old is better than any novelty. It would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say.’ Henry James’s fear that what the tourist has known and loved and already thought perfect in Venice might alter is a familiar sentiment: we all know this longing for things to remain as they were when we first knew them.

The same might be said of our feelings about detective fiction. With settings that have ranged from Perugia to Naples and now, in A Long Finish, to the wine and truffle country of the Piemonte, the sue tragicomic adventures of Michael Dibdin’s Venetian-born ‘supercop’ Aurelio Zen have offered many of the pleasures of tourism. Dibdin, however, skips over Italy’s ancient monuments to concentrate on its kidnappings and financial scams, its wiretapping and wirepulling, charting the country’s systemic circles of corruption in a way that suggests Chandler’s California. Dibdin’s own metaphor for that system is contained in the title of the first Zen novel, Ratking:

A ratking is something that happens when too many rats live in too small a space under too much pressure. Their tails become entwined and the more they strain and stretch to free themselves the tighter grows the knot binding them ... You wouldn’t expect such a living contradiction to survive ... [but] most of the ratkings ... are healthy ... biting, spitting, lashing out, yet somehow ... vilely flourishing.

Dibdin has identified the ratking’s presence in the bitter symbiosis of the Italian family, in the separatist politics of the North and even – or especially – in the Vatican. In such a society a crime can be solved either by accident or because the system has decided to sacrifice one of its members. The ratking of Italian lift is as unchanging as James hoped Venice would be. The Naples of Così Fan Tutti, Dibdin’s best book, may have been scrubbed up for the G7 conference and made safe again for tourism. Yet cleaning the streets can be a way of doing business as usual. Nothing basic has changed and nobody – the police, the criminals, the prostitutes – is exactly what he seems.

The Neapolitans themselves might find that depressing, but for the reader of detective fiction it can only be reassuring. Without some of the same old slime there wouldn’t be a novel to divert us at all, and though the terroir of A Long Finish is new, the bouquet is familiar. The body of the winemaker Aldo Vincenzo is found in his Barbaresco vineyard with, as the police report has it, ‘the penis and scrotal sack ... hacked off and removed or concealed. No trace of these items has been found.’ Everyone assumes that his son Manlio did it: hasn’t the young man been to California and returned with the kind of foreign practices that have led old Aldo publicly to accuse him of unnatural acts? A member of an élite ‘Criminalpol’ division based in Rome, but generally seconded to one regional force or another, the ‘intelligent, devious and effective’ Zen gets involved when a well-connected wine collector leans on him to reopen the case. The harvest is dangerously close and, without Manlio to supervise it, this year’s wine will be spoiled; though after that, the collector says, ‘I don’t really care what happens to him. In a year the estate will have had time to reorganise.’ And so Zen enters the closed world of an agricultural village, with its ancient grudges and secrets that go back to the Second World War: incest, a carefully guarded truffling ground, an old love affair and wine whose bottlers are ‘sometimes – how shall I put it? – imaginative as to its origins’. Dibdin has often played with the mystery novel’s subgenres, and A Long Finish is the closest thing he’s yet written to an English whodunit, although the details of wine-making prove much more interesting than those of Bradshaw or bell-ringing.

In these grape-covered hills Rome seems very far away; so, too, do the sinkholes of public corruption that Dibdin has explored in his other novels. Yet if the moral sewer this novel depicts is a private one, it remains as cosily dank as ever. What makes such places seem reassuring is, of course, the continued presence of the detective hero, that guide through the shadier side of town, someone who will show us the night and yet deposit us safely back home.

In some crucial respects, however, Zen differs from his predecessors – from Marlowe and Spenser, Dalgliesh and Dalziell, Wimsey and Poirot. As the Jamesian tourist wants to see the everlasting Italy, so the lover of detective novels wants to be able to read one more in the series, for ever, and loathes the idea that there might be some permanent change in the life of his or her favourite sleuth. Miss Marple when young? Marlowe on the wagon?

In his autobiography Trollope noted that in writing the Palliser novels he had ‘constantly’ before him the ‘necessity of progression in character – of marking the changes in men and women which would naturally be produced by the lapse of years ... On the last day of each month recorded, each person in [a] novel should be a month older than on the first’ Most detective novels cover such a thin slice of time as to make that necessity seem moot, but nearly all of them are also part of a series – the form that Trollope found so suitable for ‘marking the changes’. This is precisely what does not happen in most detective fiction: the static character of the individual detective hero is a limitation embedded in the genre. But series fiction has an aesthetic of its own, and one that’s very different from that of the superficially similar multi-volume novels of Trollope or Proust or Powell, in which the changes wrought by time provide the writer’s subject The open-endedness of a detective series militates against the sense of development that it would at first seem to make possible. The reader wants to know what happens next, and yet that desire for progression is at odds with his or her equally powerful desire for a reliable pleasure. The writer avoids a narrative line that might spill over from one volume to the next, resolving the character’s personal crises in a way that always allows for a return to the status quo ante. The detective may make things happen, but he himself is only a catalyst and must therefore remain unchanged. In this, at least the California thriller and the classic English mystery are as one.

Another reason for this static conception of character is that detective novels are about the past, concerned not with what might happen, but with what already has. What they offer instead of progression is explanation, not only of events – the mystery’s solution – but also of character; character as defined not through a developing life, but always and only in terms of its motive force. Such motives belong most obviously to the novel’s criminal, and yet the detective’s character has its reasons too; indeed no one in detective fiction ever quite seems to move beyond his motive, beyond the few facts that are held to explain him.

Dibdin’s Zen novels are no exception – or so at first it seems. In each book Zen is shown to be haunted by his father’s disappearance in Mussolini’s Russian campaign, and by a consequent sense of an unfillable absence; knocked cold in Ratking he’s even heard to mumble ‘Daddy’ in his delirium. In Vendetta, Dibdin describes him as having ‘a face that gave nothing away, yet seemed always to tremble on the brink of some expression that never quite appeared’, so that the prisoners he questions find themselves ‘shut up with a man who barely seemed to exist’. The women in his life complain about his unreachability. What makes Dibdin’s work unusual is the suggestion that the psychology Zen’s origins have produced – he is impulsive, irrational, even unstable – is inseparable from the kind of cop he’s become. Unlike Wexford or Wimsey, his personal quirks are not separate from his professional life.

A good Italian, Zen knows that he should never trust anything that resembles a simple explanation. Yet he’s apt to see conspiracy where none exists, and to find himself blindsided by the betrayals that do come his way. He doesn’t learn from experience, but instead maintains an utterly unfounded faith in his ability to shape events – and in consequence not just one but two of his adventures end with the suicide of the man he’s pursuing. Once could be bad luck, and the first of Zen’s victims is indeed a murderer. But the second, in the ghostly Dead Lagoon, is a childhood friend whom Zen hounds through their native city. Zen isn’t a very good cop. The wonderfully intricate Vendetta starts with his realisation that he has ‘badly bungled his unexpected promotion’, and if he doesn’t quite bungle the problem that the novel assigns him, his success nevertheless comes through no fault of his own. But although Zen fails, he always fails upwards. At the end of Così Fan Tutti, in which his actions have stymied a sophisticated undercover investigation, he’s brought out before the television cameras and commended for his ‘exceptional heroism’: the police can’t afford to admit that one of their senior officers is a fuck-up.

And not only in his professional lift. Many readers claim to be as interested in their favourite detective’s personality as they are in the mystery itself. A puzzling claim, yet one that seems sustainable in Dibdin’s case. Zen has a private life which develops from book to book and thus links them in a continuous plot. The crucial element is his relationship with his co-worker Tania Bacis. Their affair began to open out in Vendetta and Cabal, the second and third volumes in the series, before abruptly shutting down in Dead Lagoon. But Tania reappeared at the end of Coì fan Tutti, pregnant and demanding that Zen marry her.

In A Long Finish Dibdin has allowed Tania to abort the foetus, leaving Zen alone and childless. Yet such a non-event can have an interest of its own. For Zen now goes around acting as though the foetus had in fact been born, giving it a name – Carlo – and talking of the boy as though he were alive, trying to be for this absent child the father who went missing from his own early life. He is so frantic with loss that he’s started to walk in his sleep, cutting his head open in the process; and that sense of loss here drives him into a typically foolish, irrational and deeply compelling decision, a decision that makes me eager to see what happens to him in the next book.

At the same time, his behaviour as a cop has deteriorated. In Ratking, Zen speaks of wanting to be left alone with a prisoner in order to beat him up. That however, is just a ploy, and though Zen may find it hard to believe in his own decency, the other characters see him as a good man – in that time-honoured, hard-boiled way. Yet the Zen of A Long Finish, battered by six books full of personal and professional difficulty, can no longer mask his own unscrupulousness, and this time the threat to beat up a prisoner is made in all seriousness. As it happens, this prisoner is the novel’s villain. But Zen doesn’t know that and will conclude his investigations without discovering it.

After the comic intermezzo of Così Fan Tutti, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Zen’s life might take a turn for the better. A Long Finish puts paid to those hopes. Perhaps James was right: it would be a sad day indeed when there was something new to say about Venice; it would be a sad day as well when Aurelio Zen enjoyed a complete success.