Mean streets and dodgy arias

Michele Roberts salutes the master of new-wave thrillers, Michael Dibdin, whose latest Aurelio Zen mystery mixes operatic romance with a gritty Neapolian setting

Male writers are often thought not to be interested in romance, a subject supposedly confined to female practitioners. Since they're seen as feminine, romances can be simultaneously despised and approved as fitting for girly minds. You can consume your romance short, neat and strong, or you can buy the diluted version in more "literary" containers. Some female writers of thrillers, such as Agatha Christie, have always stirred up their whodunnits with a dose of romance. Modern thriller-writers like Sara Paretsky and Sarah Dunant have converted the romance element into wry takes on sexual manners. Chandler's heroes have inspired a new generation of heroines who go running in the mean streets to develop their muscles, can't cook to save their lives and don't look to marriage for adventure. They do, however, have plenty of sex, and, just like their male counterparts, fall in lust with danger and doom. The thriller is where sexual politics gets debated.

Nor are the male writers lagging behind. For example, John Harvey's excellent Resnick series, featuring the gloomy jazz-loving deli-haunting detective inspector, allows its narrator to express interestingly contradictory attitudes to women's sexuality and men's response to it. Harvey presents Resnick as a good man, something of a new man, but allows him plenty of ambivalence about women. Michael Dibdin, similarly, always makes his hero's dodgy sex life part of the mystery. Neither author simplistically duplicates the film noir perspective on femmes fatales, but both play with it.

Dibdin's Aurelio Zen, it must be said, would not know a new man from an old roue. Part of his enfant terrible charm is how he is terrified of women. He's always leaving: not only, you gather, because he's been posted to a new city, but because he's fleeing his latest romantic entanglement. Italy, as part of a symbolic geography, flourishes with macho culture. Feminists are thin on the ground. Zen is both rueful and gleeful about how all the women he meets sooner or later begin behaving like the omnipotent possessive mother of his deepest nightmares and must be escaped from.

Zen may be unfaithful, but he inspires fidelity in this female reader, eternally willing to be led a merry dance through the mazes of modern Italian life and politics Dibdin so expertly and lovingly constructs. The intricate plots of the last two novels lost me at times, I must confess, but the superbly readable new one, Cosi Fan Tutti, laid out with all the flourishes of a Renaissance garden, has the reader panting along through the elegant elaborations of an opera. One benefit of this is clarity, others are lightness and wit. Airy and exquisite as a sfogliatella di ricotta, this novel, replicates the story and libretto of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, with the crucial gender switch of the title reflected in the goings-on.

We're in Naples. Zen seemingly wants a rest after his recent troubles in Venice, so polices his patch in the docks in a minimalist fashion, whiling away his resulting leisure by conspiring with his landlady to lay sexual traps for the two no-gooders wooing her daughters. It's the men's chastity that gets tested, with the expert help of two lovely and hardworking prostitutes imported by the indefatigable Zen. The ensuing brouhaha and romps are complicated by the troubles stirring in the city. The streets are being literally cleaned up by the severe expedient of dumping villains into garbage trucks, where they are chewed up, their screams deafened by the chorus and orchestra of Naples night life.

Some bodies turn up where they shouldn't. Other bodies mysteriously disappear. Just as you think you're enjoying a light-hearted curtain-raiser, the music deepens and darkens. Everyone and everything is corrupt. Innocence and goodness are impossible. The final scene, though, restores our faith in happy endings with its comic effects, everyone on stage at once all singing their hearts out. Zen turns out to be Super Hero. Now in the next episode, I think he should travel to, er, Vicenza, fall in love with a female psychoanalyst, and confront his mum.

! 'Cosi Fan Tutti: An Aurelio Zen Mystery' is published by Faber next week at pounds 14.99. Michael Dibdin's four other Aurelio Zen mysteries are also issued in paperback, at pounds 5.99 each

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee