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
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution