Michael Dibdin may have achieved widespread fame only late in his career, with the publication of his first Aurelio Zen novel, Ratking, in 1988, on the verge of his fortieth birthday, and he may have written only eighteen novels in his thirty-year career, but he has left a lasting legacy in the mystery genre. An innovative and experimental writer who chose words with great care and devised multilayered plots that brought greater depth and meaning to crime fiction, Dibdin successfully tested the boundaries of mystery and thriller conventions throughout his life. Keenly observant and blessed with a well-developed sense of dark humor, he produced the homage to the classical detective, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978). He paid tribute to Agatha Christie and others from the Golden Age of traditional mysteries with The Dying of the Light (1993). He produced a historical sleuth (A Rich Full Death, 1986), subtle studies of psychological suspense (The Tryst, 1989, and Thanksgiving, 2000), social satire(Dirty Tricks, 1991), and a chilling examination of random American violence (Dark Specter, 1995).
However, the contribution that Dibdin will undoubtedly be best remembered for is his creation of Aurelio Zen, the cynical, philosophical Italian detective who in the course of his investigations prowls the length and breadth of his native country attempting to bring order out of chaos. Dibdin presents the grimy underbelly of Italy unknown to tourists—contradictory, corrupt, and culturally heterogeneous, a nation with a long and volatile history that has seen everything and seemingly grown blasé about crime—and sets his protagonist to work at almost impossible tasks in a milieu where his job is often undermined by the authorities in charge. Dibdin, who often stated that he never planned a series but was merely fictionalizing his experiences from his sojourn in Italy during the 1980’s, was forced by popular demand to continue writing about Aurelio Zen; the books have been translated into more than fifteen languages. Critics (except those in Italy, who are apparently indifferent to the crime genre) have been almost universal in their praise of the Zen novels. For his efforts, Dibdin won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Golden Dagger Award for the initial entry, Ratking, and a New York Times notable book citation for a nonseries novel, Dirty Tricks.