From the beginning of Michael Dibdin’s career, no one questioned his storytelling or writing abilities. The strongest criticisms he experienced focused on his first novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, and were leveled at the author for his violation of certain Sir Arthur Conan Doyle conventions. After the publication of the critically successful A Rich Full Death, and particularly following the initial entry in the Aurelio Zen series, Ratking, dissenting opinions on Dibdin’s work have been few and far between.
Dibdin’s fertile imagination roamed over many diverse topics that he set against the backdrop of crime: spiritualism (A Rich Full Death), mental disintegration (The Tryst), British class distinctions (Dirty Tricks), the treatment of the elderly (The Dying of the Light), and the arrhythmia and violent nature of American society (Dark Specter). Both in these nonseries works and in Dibdin’s Zen series—which deals with various Italian-based crimes culminating in murder—his plots are complex and meticulously structured. The Zen novels in particular consist of many separate twisted skeins painstakingly woven together to present a rich, atmospheric tapestry of life, corruption, and violent death, Italian-style. Aurelio Zen himself may be theorized to represent facets of one or both of two Latin root words that might have inspired his name: Aurelio suggests both aur-(hearing: a detective must develop the ability to listen and hear the unspoken to be successful) and aurum (gold: the investigator as a shining nugget among drab dross). Zen, an unusual sobriquet in a country where surnames typically end in vowels, suggests an embodiment of the principles of Zen Buddhism: the study of self-discipline and a commitment to meditation, with the objective of attaining enlightenment through intuitive insight and to achieving transcendent truths beyond the intellect—all lessons that must be learned in the nonlogical and paradoxical venue of Italy.
Dibdin, who can always be counted on to employ words with exacting precision, is at his most lyrical stylistically when writing of detective Zen. The author is a master at evocative descriptions of the Italian countryside and in drawing distinctions among the qualities of the places...
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