BOOK REVIEW / Shockwaves in the lagoon: 'Dead Lagoon' - Michael Dibdin: Faber & Faber, 14.99

IMAGINE YOU are the marketing manager of Faber & Faber. Your brief is to design a book of fiction to capture a good chunk of the upmarket leisure sector. The target readership are those who take their summer's lease of a Tuscan villa or go on citybreaks to Rome or Venice. Or indeed those who wish to evoke the magic of Italy while stopping at home. Whom do you turn to, to write the dream script? Who else but Michael Dibdin?

Dead Lagoon is the fourth of his thrillers starring the Venetian detective Aurelio Zen. In it, Dibdin tells a rollicking good tale that you want both to read fast, because of its gripping storyline, and to linger over, to savour the evocative descriptions of place and mood. His setting - the Dead Lagoon of Zen's home city - is more than a locus delicti. Rather, it is the location for a vivid and authentic account of the shockwaves and eddies caused by the massive upheavals Italy is currently undergoing. It is a sad indictment of the shortcomings of journalists that no newspaper articles have captured so poignantly the uncertainties of the country in transition.

Dibdin is our most perspicacious observer of Italian mores. He does not use Italy merely as a backdrop, but exploits his stories as a vehicle to convey his pictures of the contemporary scene. Whether adumbrating the archetypal relationship of Zen and his ageing mother, or the moral cowardice (or political astuteness, depending on your outlook) of senior civil servants, he describes human interaction which is characteristically Italian.

Zen goes back to Venice to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy American businessman. It is not a police job - or at least, he is not officially on the case. Although he is a senior police officer in Rome, he has agreed to take on a freelance piece of private sleuthing for the lawyers of the deceased. He undertook this task partly as a favour to his ex, Ellen, but mainly to help obtain the wherewithal to set up Tania, his current 'Lover? Mistress? Partner? Part of the charm of their relationship was that it eluded definition.'

Our hero is not without a few human failings. He is not strictly venal - he showed in earlier tales that he could not be bought, but was prepared to bend the rules to make a bit on the side - and to have a bit on the side too, for faithfulness was not one of his strong suits either. At first he resisted Ellen's entreaties. 'It's strictly illegal for a state employee to engage in secondary paid employment,' he pompously declaimed. She understood him - and the system - too well. 'Oh, come on Aurelio. You guys only work mornings anyway. Plus the money could be paid into a Swiss bank account.'

Zen's search for the missing businessman leads to a complex tale of drugs smuggling, bent policemen, shady boat owners, and ambitious local politicians. From the opening scene, set on the cemetery island of the lagoon, we realise that life - and death - are never as they seem, and that truth is as at best an approximation, shrouded in shifting layers of mystery and deceit.

The political context provides an unsettling backdrop for this tale. Nor does Dibdin ignore the recent changes to the criminal justice system in Italy. The old order is in disarray, embroiled in corruption scandals. New, ominous political forces are at work to fill the vacuum. Fact and fiction are seamlessly joined. Real people have walk-on parts in this portrayal of a city where the local demagogue - his sensual wife, a childhood acquaintance, stirs Zen's loins - hopes to revive the Venetian republic. The centre has collapsed, he argues. Rome no longer holds sway. Power now lies on the periphery, in city states like Venice. The city should be seeking new alliances with the lands of its historic area of influence, in the old Venetian empire along the Dalmatian coast, in the ex-Yugoslavia.

Zen is unimpressed by this appeal. But in time he realises there is some truth in the idea that every Venetian, even one so deracinated as himself, has to be either with the new separatist political movement or against it: there is no other choice. It is a challenge by the new order to take sides. This is something which, in his past, Zen had tried to avoid, in order to survive the shifting alliances at the top which could, and frequently did, stifle investigations or block promising careers if an officer was not in some way beholden to certain political interests. As he prepares to leave the city to return to Rome, he argues that Venice is his city too. Yet he remains ambivalent. For he also realises that the new populist political culture is so alien to his way of thinking that he still feels a stranger there.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?