BOOK REVIEW / Zen and the art of Venetian maintenance: Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin: Faber, pounds 14.99

Click to follow
THERE IS a wonderful topicality to Michael Dibdin's ninth and perhaps finest novel, a thriller set in the brave new world of Italy's right-wing politics. You won't find media baron Silvio Berlusconi among the list of characters, but his doubtful ally Umberto Bossi weighs in and duly falls out with the local political supremo, whose wife is having an affair with Dibdin's hero, Aurelio Zen, the police detective who is this author's contribution to crime fiction.

On a trip to Venice, Zen is suddenly caught in the grim political machinery of the Northern League. He is forced to confront the Venetian separatist movement because the local supremo and his cronies in the Lega Veneta are trying to resurrect the Venetian Republic using the slogan 'Our past is our future, our future is our past'.

One of the many ways in which Dead Lagoon can be read is as self-help gothic: how to stay afloat in a sinking city. It centres on Venice itself - the financial and moral corruption of its government, the physical corruption of its palazzos and canals, and the dividing and unifying forces of personality. The main plot involves the disappearance of a Chicago businessman called Ivan Durridge, who is thought to have been kidnapped or murdered on his private island on the lagoon. Dibdin is a thrilling storyteller with a nimble imagination, but he occasionally overindulges his lively talent for invention, as when a half-clue plunges Zen into the company of unsavoury characters, and his stylistic flourishes sometimes verge on self-parody - but at least he makes up for it by sidestepping the more cheesy conventions of the 'rogue cop' story. Poignant moments slide almost imperceptibly into funny ones, and vice versa, while the story achieves a pleasing lightness in its tourist-scape of palazzos, humpback bridges and vaporettos.

Zen proves to be an unreliable but colourful hero - his personal life, it almost goes without saying, is a shambles of evasion and cover-up - yet our own entry into the harrowing, funny world of this melancholy pariah is surprisingly easy. In fact, our pleasurable intimacy with Zen becomes almost unsettling - it feels unearned, like the intimacy we take for granted in his relationship with Dal Maschio's wife.

Sexuality is on the surface here, in the whimsical luxury of the writing and in the characters themselves, who are more sensual than intellectual. In Dibdin's Venice, terrorists and tourists co-exist with ancient rituals and the miracle of dappling light - but this strange mixture of the old and the new is presented with such ease and conviction as to make the depiction of the city instantly timeless. The flavour of Dibdin's wit is wise and dolorous, like that of someone slightly regretful in the face of helpless recognitions.

Zen's search reveals to us, as well as to him, insights into the nature of guilt and survival. Dibdin's ability to shine a clear light on the dark things of life without becoming moralistic makes a vivid backdrop for his alertness to the Venetian past and its predisposition to the east. It would be wrong to disclose the link between Del Maschio and the Croats which yields the denouement. Suffice it to say that the Dalmatian coast was, of course, the first and last outpost of the Venetian empire, and that Ivan Durridge turns out to be Ivan Duric, a Serb from Sarajevo.

In fact, all of history seems to be pressing into these lives, and the human beings live so intensely on the page that their fate continues to trouble us long after the shock of the novel's dark end. This is a book that provides an ingenious and expansive meditation on the nature of good and evil, the moral limits of political reform and the intoxications of violence - and all without a trace of pretension or a moment of tedium.

(Photograph omitted)