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

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