A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Michael Dibdin/Aurelio Zen - Requiescat in Pace
Friday, April 06, 2007

Michael John Dibdin, novelist, born March 21 1947; died March 30 2007.

I would have never known except for my tenacious information freak friend Mark Budgen who found out from a Guardian podcast. Budgen is one of those eccentric Englishmen who somehow jumped from LP records, bypassing the tape and CD era, straight into the iPod.

I met Michael Dibdin three times. The second time I traveled to Seattle to interview him for Celia Duthie's wondrous little gem, The Reader. He opened the door of his modest house while a woman next door eyed me while weeding, She was Dibdin's wife, ( his third and last), crime writer Kathrine Beck. They each wrote in their respective house but I didn't dare ask about their sleeping arrangement. Mark Budgen's contribution to my false, based in fear, diplomacy would have been, "Good for you, Alex." Budgen is an expert on living the life of two simultaneous households.

If I were to cite my favourite mystery book of all the ones I have ever read (I am having a hard time not considering our very own Canadian J. Robert Janes's excellent St-Cyr/Kohler mysteries) it would be Dibdin's definitive Venice based 1994 mystery novel Dead Lagoon. I will re-publish below my review that appeared that year in The Reader.

The Dead Lagoon
An Aurelio Zen Mystery by Michael Dibdin
Harper Collins Publisher Ltd, Toronto, 297 Pages, $25.00
Reviewed by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

After finishing the Dead Lagoon , Aurelio Zen fans might think that Aurelio is in State Railways car compartment on his way home to Rome to his dotty mother Giustiniana. They might further think that he will try to patch up his eroding relationship with the fiery tempered Tania. They would we wrong - Aurelio Zen is actually living quietly in a modest house in the Wallingford neighbourhood of Seattle, with his friend Kathrine(crime writer K.K. Beck) and her extensive collection of Agatha Christie hardbacks. At least that's what I thought when Michael Dibdin opened the door on a morning in late February, 1995 puffing one of Aurelio's "camelshit Nazionali." Alas, I found out they were Marlboro Lights when we were sipping our strong expressos - not even Aurelio's usual caffé corretto with the added shot of grapa.

What had led me to that pleasant morning with Dibdin? ("His expression is stern, almost saturnine, yet his manner is courteous and respectful, " a description of Aurelio Zen in the Dead Lagoon fits Dibdin admirably,)in my search for Reginald Hill, Colin Dexter and Paco Ignacio Taibo II novels, my requests for new inspector Morses. Belascoarán Shynes and Dalziel and Pascoes at Duthie's, The Mystery Merchant Bookstore and Granville Books were frequently answered with a persistent, "No, but have you tried Dibdin's Aurelio Zen?"

Nine books later I am a fan. Michael Dibdin's ouput is divided into what he calls his "stand-alone novels", Dirty Tricks, The Last Sherlock Holmes Novel where Holmes, Moriarty and Jack the Ripper develop a very intimate relationship), The Tryst, A Rich Full Death, The Dying of the Lightand the four Aurelio Zen novels: Ratking, Vendetta, Cabal and Dead Lagoon. The hero is a Venetian-born plainclothes Vice-Questore of the elite Criminalpol squad of the Interior Ministry in Rome. He attempts to solve crimes in a world of police corruption and ineptness, a serpentine bureaucracy not all independent from the mafiosi. In Dead Lagoon Aurelio returns to his origins, a wintry Venice, to seek a solution to the kidnapping and disappearance of wealthy American industrialist. Not since Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers have I read such a vivid description of Venice. But this is a bleak Venice powdered by snow, enveloped by fog and with an ever diminishing population, A shadowy Venice that turns into a ghost town in the evenings. Aurelio Zen has almost forgotten his roots as Dibdin describes:

When he awoke again the room was filled with an astringent brilliance which made him blink, an abrasive slapping of wavelets andthe edgy scent which had surprised him the moment he stepped out of the train. He had forgotten even the most obvious things about the place, like the pervasive risky odour of the sea.

Little is known of Aurelio's off hour tastes and diversions, and Dibdin the writer will rarely volunteer much personal information, he does not much approve of policemen like PD James'Inspector Dalgliesh moonlighting as a published poet. Dibdin likes to keep bothhis and Aurelio's life private. But I was able to extract a bit about both, I asked about Aurelio's views on grappa; Dibdin's answer: "Like all Italians, he would regard any commercial grappa as second-rate by definition. The only good stuff comes from some private connection with a winemaker who distills their own. But I think he would not despise Nardini's Reserva (as he would Grappa Giulia) which is the most commonly available brand), and in a pinch he would drink anything."

Dibdin has lived outside his native England more than he has in. At various stages of his life he has resided in Ireland, Scotland, Italy (he taught English in Perugia for four years) and has spent five years in Canada, Edmonton and Vancouver. Dibdin, born in 1947, might just have been another hippie who haunted Kitsilano in the late 60s, not by his direct admission, but I quote: "I lived in many houses -we moved every month or so, it seems now - mostly in Kitsilano. I wrote a whole novel while there. It has never been published. But it was a very important period of my life, and opened my eyes to the possibilities of life in ways I have subsequently exploited in the published books. I also taught a course in philosophy for Vancouver Free University, made money writing essays for students at UBC and Simon Simon Fraser and was an avid reader of the Georgia Straight. It was my second adolescence - much better than my first!"

Although Dibdin does not share Jonathan Raban's love for Schubert and prefers Mozart, he does dine once a month with that other British expatriate and Seattle resident. "We swap anecdotes and theories about Seattle and the Northwest, about which we disagree; Kathrine is fourth-generation Seattle and gives me a very different take on the place from Raban's 'city of immgigrants.'"

While in Seattle Dibdin has written one of his stan-alone novels Dark Spectre , a police procedural set in Seattle - to be published in England in June and in Canada next January. The big news for Aurelio Zen fans is that Dibdin has sold three of the Zen books to the BBC. Julian Mitchell, who wrote the successful screenplays for the Inspector Morse series, is working on Dead Lagoon and if all goes well Aurelio Zen will hit our screens by summer of 1996.

For those who can't wait until the next Aurelio Zen - "It will be set in Naples, with an opera buffa quality(I hope!)" - there are two options. One is to try Aurelio's recipe on page 132 of Dead Lagoon for spaghetti Aglio, olio e peperoncino on a potential loved one and immediately raise the temperature of your relationship. (Dibdin stresses that no cheese is used for Aurelio's recipe.) The other is to look for Dibdin's only published short story. GQ commissioned him to write a story based on his experiences during a trip to Argentina. A Death in the Family involves Jorge Luis Borges, a fiendish young girl, and the disappeared of Argentina's dirty war. Although it has been widely translated in Europe and in the East, Ellery Queen Magazinefound it too depressing to publish it in the US. Where can this story be found? "The short story was in GQ in 1990. August, I think. It is also in the anthology Best Short Stories of 1991 Heinemann, London 1991."

Having established a connection between this Argentine reviewer's fondness for Borges and Dibdin's only published short story I decided to enquire about my favourite Mexican crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Surprise! "Kathrine and I met in Gijón, Spain, where we were both attending a mystery writers' conference , Semana Negra organized by Paco Taibo. And please don't call her my companion in crime."

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward, having run out of Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Michael Dibdin is currently reading the crime novels of that eminent Newyorican, Jerome Charyn.

Michael Dibdin and a Venetian gondola


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