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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before