The Books Interview: Zen and the art of murder

Michael Dibdin's Venetian copper delights crime buffs everywhere. But what does he owe to Belfast?
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Michael Dibdin's new novel sends his detective Aurelio Zen to Catania in Sicily, to report on an elite police squad: the Direzione Investigativa Anti-Mafia, which has been fighting terrorism and is generally believed to have succeeded. But Blood Rain (Faber & Faber, pounds 16.99) recounts Zen's most perilous assignment, which places him in jeopardy from both sides. The island is full of shadowy figures dogging the footsteps of Zen and his adoptive daughter, and the book is charged with the atmosphere of a city racked by sudden and explosive violence. Did this mean dangerous research for Dibdin in Sicily?

"As it turned out, no", he says. Michael Dibdin is a big, calm man, observant and controlled. He goes sailing a lot and his hands and arms have a yachtsman's muscles and competence. I imagine he has good reactions in an emergency. But they were not needed in Catania, though he is suitably murky about his connections there.

"In a situation like that, you're never quite sure what's going to happen. I went fairly well recommended by various people. In fact, as a tourist destination, Sicily is one of the safest places you can go. Catania, the city which features most in this novel, is moderately more dangerous than Palermo. It has a lot of petty street crime. But the serious crime happens on a different level, in a parallel universe. The chances of your being involved are virtually zero."

This sounds modest, and perhaps doesn't account sufficiently for the feeling of authenticity which infuses the book. Dibdin himself had a peaceful, happy childhood in Northern Ireland. "I used to go out on bike-rides into the countryside, and if your tyre burst you would just go to the nearest farm-house. They would give you tea and bread-and-butter and let you make a phone call."

This peaceful landscape seems a far cry from a career as a crime-writer, though in the Zen books the brutality is more often glimpsed than pushed in the reader's face (and seems all the more terrifying for that). What impelled Dibdin to write crime stories in the first place?

"I suppose it works dramatically as a way of investigating more mundane things - a way of erecting a stage on which things can happen. It's like a cinema screen: it's there and glowing, and people are going to pay attention. You can actually do a lot of stuff that doesn't relate to the violence aspect. If you look at my books, the violence is pretty low-key, even compared with the middle-of-the-road English detective story. I'm more interested in what leads up to and away from it."

Blood Rain does indeed combine precise details of life in a Sicilian town with the brutalities enacted around it, though its sense of place is hard won. Dibdin, whose books are set in locations such as Naples, Venice, Rome and the West Coast of the US, believes that writers should use exotic places only if they know them inside out. "I went to Italy to teach English and did that for five years, and then wanted to use that experience as a writer. I didn't choose to go to Italy so I could write about it.

"I did Dark Spectre [his book set in the US] after living in America for three years, and I had spent four or five years in Canada. I think the writing comes out of your experience. I'm very suspicious of people who pop off to Moscow and whip off a quick thriller; my feeling is that it's just dressing up a plot with a glamorous location."

Dibdin's wife is American and they reside in Seattle. I ask if he ever thought about returning to Britain. "America is where I live for personal reasons, but it's not somewhere that feeds my deep roots."

I don't think he can have observed an American couple who have just slipped in to the hotel lounge where we are talking, and are pouring themselves coffee. They see the microphone, the notebook, hear the deep incisive voice, and are clearly riveted. "It's very difficult to say anything about this without seeming to go in for easy Yank-bashing," says Dibdin, "but it's the broad cultural level I have problems with. America is the most incredibly nannying society."

The writer takes a deep drag on his fag and continues on the subject of Americans. "They're constantly banging on about diversity, but it's probably the most homogeneous society since the Soviet Union. In America, everything I see or read - it's all so bland, there's nothing you can play with, a lack of edge I really miss."

There's a nervy rattle of coffee-cups and the Americans slip out, so they miss the concluding remarks about the States - which are that plenty of things get up Dibdin's nose back in Britain. He has a sharp sense of international comedy: Zen's encounter with English people wearing "Arsenal" T-shirts is a joyous episode in the new book. Of course Zen knows what the word means. Is there not an arsenale in Venice, after all?

Why did Dibdin at last send the Venetian Zen to Sicily, that most dangerous cockpit? Sicily, Dibdin replies, was a challenge that had to be faced for someone who had invented an Italian detective and taken him around the country. "Of course, Sicily is a place where there is a lot of organised violence and extremely unpleasant things happen." Yes, and in the book there are events which, if not described in gloating detail, shock the reader by their destructiveness, by the boldness of a writer who takes on the challenge of conveying the emotional pain caused by organised crime.

There is a powerful passage in which a character puts the case so often mounted by mafiosi: that they do not involve innocent parties. Oh yes they do, is the riposte: they killed women, they murdered judges and, devastatingly, the real names of victims are listed. Zen may be an invented character, but this is an authentic study of gangster savagery and the struggle of coping with the casual murders of friends and lovers trapped in its warfare.

How could an ordinary fictional detective emerge from these horrors? "Zen takes on the mafia and wins - it's not a credible scenario," says his creator. "I had to work out how personal and nasty the whole thing is - and it had to be real and important to the reader. If one bunch of mafiosi just kills off another bunch, who cares?"

There is still something puzzling. Where does this calm, middle-class Brit, educated at Sussex University, get a deeply-felt sense of what it is like to live in the crossfire of warring gangs? Not just from research? I ask him about his time at Sussex, then the trendiest academic hot-spot. He laughs. "I was a timid little provincial who had come in from Northern Ireland."

He has no trace of a Belfast accent, but went to live there aged seven. His parents were English, his father a physicist with an academic job. His was a happy, protected childhood. But is that where the dangerous implications of his writing come from - the sense of a being a stranger amid imperfectly understood codes of language and behaviour? "We lived in a nice middle-class area. It was a perfect place to grow up - utterly safe. People left their doors and cars unlocked. The troubles seemed like a total anachronism. Everyone believed that it was just something that would die a natural death."

Dibdin thinks there might have been hope for the Province, if some initiative had been taken in the Sixties, but the British Government simply preferred to turn its back, like a fellow-lodger in Brighton who asked him where Belfast was. "If the Blair-Mowlam plans had been agreed back then," he says passionately, "there would have been 3,500 fewer dead bodies."

He says that Belfast has, in a sense, come into everything he has written. Could he write about violence in Northern Ireland as he writes aboute the mafia? No. He quotes Colm Tibn: "He said he couldn't possibly write fiction about the North because, without meaning it disrespectfully, it wasn't his problem. I'm an outsider too in that society."

He speaks of Belfast with great affection, another of the flourishing school of English writers nourished by Ireland, North and South. He feels a powerful debt to the wonderful pre-television pub-talk and consequent social demand for wit. "It all really did revolve around language and the ability to manipulate the telling phrase and compel your audience to listen. Now Ireland's gone potty over TV and the great Irish literary wave may be over."

Dibdin returned to Belfast after university. He was teaching a group of shipyard apprentices on day release, in a technical college with huge Victorian classrooms. All the students would sit together in the front. "I'd go in and say, `What are we going to talk about today?' And they'd say, `Sex!' And I'd say, `What's your problem?' `Well sir, does she drop them or do I tear them off?'"

The day after the Bloody Sunday killings in 1972, Dibdin walked into the classroom. "And this group of about 20 people was divided into two quite separate groups, about 30 feet apart, with 20 rows of empty desks between them." He doesn't need to elaborate. The anecdote ends there, a landmark on a long writer's journey from the child given tea at a strange farm-house to the brooding violence of Sicily.

Michael Dibdin, a biography: Michael Dibdin, born in 1947, is the creator of the Italian detective, Aurelio Zen. He was schooled in England and Northern Ireland, where his father was an academic physicist, and attended universities in Britain (Sussex) and Canada (Alberta). He completed his first novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in 1978, and then taught English in Italy for four years, at the University of Perugia. His first Zen novel Rat- king won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger award for 1988, and led to a series set in different parts of Italy: Vendetta, Cabal, Dead Lagoon, Cosi Fan Tutti, A Long Finish and now Blood Rain, his thirteenth book in all. His other works, including The Tryst, A Rich Full Death, Dirty Tricks and Dark Spectre, have settings that range from Victorian England to modern California. Michael Dibdin and his wife, the writer Kathrine Beck, now live in Seattle in Washington state.