That was Zen. This is now

Michael Dibdin has won all there is to win in this country, which in his genre means the Golden Dagger award for crime writing. Now he's taking on the home of the gumshoe. By Peter Guttridge

Peter Guttridge
Monday 19 June 1995 23:02

Michael Dibdin is in self-imposed exile. Again. The crime writer best known for his creation Aurelio Zen, the fatalistic Italian policeman for whom "lugubrious" is too cheerful a description, has spent large chunks of his life as an expat. But in 1984, aged 37, he settled down in a quiet suburb of Oxford to alternate writing the Zen series with well- regarded, intelligent crime novels like Dirty Tricks and The Dying of the Light. Then last year, age 47, his second marriage broke up and he set off again, ending up this time in Seattle on America's Pacific North- west coast.

He shares a house there with his new partner, the writer Katherine Beck, in Wallingford, a pleasant neighbourhood of Seattle. The house, about a mile from the waterfront property where Kurt Cobain killed himself, is the scene of a bloody shoot-out in his new novel, Dark Spectre. "Britain had gone dead on me," he says, American intonations already seeping into his very English drawl. "The place wasn't giving me any ideas any more. I could keep the Zen stories going, but what about everything else? In my life I've been a permanent expat; it's the grand old British tradition of doing better abroad. It gives you an edge. In Britain I felt I was living with my parents - you know, safe and secure."

He chose Seattle, home to his fellow writer Jonathan Raban (with whom he sails on Puget Sound), because he wanted to set the book in a city that hasn't been over-exploited, unlike New York, Los Angeles or Miami. "It had to be set in America, not because random violence doesn't happen in the UK but because the perception is that it doesn't. And Seattle is a city everyone has heard of but doesn't know very much about. There is a clique of local crime writers [his new partner included] but they are not on the whole nationally famous."

Dark Spectre is to all intents and purposes an American novel, with not a non-American character in it. "It was a challenge to make it authentically American. I'm aware of well-regarded UK writers who have set novels in America that have done well in Britain, then been laughed off the review pages in the States. It's not so much the words, it's the rhythm of spoken American. The book was going well chapter by chapter but it was a nailbiter to the last moment because I didn't know if I'd brought it off."

Friends, his agent and his new American publisher, Sonny Mehta at Random House, gave it the thumbs up. He'll have to wait nine months for its US publication to see if the critics and readers do the same and allow him to crack the US market. He could be on his way. Dead Lagoon, his most recent Zen novel, has just come out in the US to cracking reviews, and a coast-to-coast promo tour attracted a lot of new readers.

"Zen has always been very popular in the States but the books are hard to get. The first two are out of print and the third is in a cheap airport edition that falls apart after a reading. A lot of my US sales come through specialist mystery bookshops. They've been importing the Faber editions from Canada, quite illegally of course, as the only way to get hold of them."

Zen, a Venetian working miles from home, is, like many of Dibdin's central characters, a misfit and an outsider. It's something Dibdin has perhaps felt all his life. From the age of seven he lived as an expat English schoolboy in Ulster where his father, a physics teacher, had settled after years of moving around. He read English at Sussex University, then went to Canada to do a postgraduate degree. (It included a course on Blake's later epics.) He also experienced the hippie lifestyle which is tellingly recreated in Dark Spectre.

"It was very important to me - a second childhood after a strait-laced upbringing. There were lots of good things about Ireland but not large amounts of teenage fun. So when I came to Canada and the States in my twenties, I embraced all that." Embraced it so much he was thrown off his PhD course. The next few years included a spell as the Acme Painting and Decorating Company. Then, in the mid-Seventies, he came back to London with his first wife, Benita, and their daughter Moselle.

He had been writing since university, working on a big unpublishable novels about Life. In London, he chucked literature in favour of a clever idea about Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. He wrote the pastiche in six months and it was published in 1978 to critical and popular acclaim. It also attracted a good deal of mail. "I got extraordinary letters from serial-murder fanatics: 'Wonderful book, why don't you do one now on the Lubeck murders - or, of course, on my good self' - that at least was the implication."

In 1979, his wife left him and took their daughter back to Canada. The next year Dibdin went to Perugia to teach English at the university. He began work on a second pastiche, A Rich Full Death, about the detective work of the poet Browning in Florence. He found expat life was becoming "a pastiche experience". It's unreal in a very attractive way. At parties you are an object of interest just because you're English."

In 1984 he came back to England with his second wife, Sybil, and immediately began to write about Perugia and the corruption endemic in Italian society. Ratking, the first Aurelio Zen novel, won the 1988 Gold Dagger Award. Dibdin had never intended there should be a second Zen novel. "My agent, Pat Kavanagh, wanted 50 pages trimmed. She said, 'You don't need to put in every insight you've ever had about Italy. You can always write another book.' Zen was meant to be an enabling figure, a faceless nothing, but when I decided to write the sequel - Vendetta (1990) - I had to put more flesh on the bones."

Since then Dibdin, who claims he is "fanatically lazy", has been writing one novel a year while reviewing regularly for the Independent on Sunday and the Boston Globe. He is impatient for Dark Spectre's publication, since he thinks it the most commercial thing he's done. Some of his quirkier novels - The Tryst and Dying of the Light - have been too "odd" for his readers, especially in the States. "A lot of people just don't get them," he says. "But what I'm happiest about is that I've never repeated myself. Even with the Zen series, I try to make each one slightly different."

Dibdin is writing a new Zen novel, a light piece set in Naples. He comes to Britain every couple of months to see his children. But Seattle is definitely his base now. He'll shortly get his green card, and after a rough first year - "there was so much going on: the break-up of my marriage, being away from friends, bureaucratic hassle" - he is feeling more settled. Well, for the time being.

n 'Dark Spectre' (Faber & Faber), 19 June

Michael Dibdin: a bibliography

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978)

Doctor Watson's posthumous memoir of Sherlock Holmes and his involvement with Jack the Ripper. An exuberant pastiche, in keeping with the Holmesian canon though with a nasty twist in the tale.

A Rich Full Death (1986)

Another pastiche. The poet Robert Browning plays detective. While maintaining domestic accord with Elizabeth B and knocking off the odd couplet, Browning investigates a series of murders in mid-19th-century Florence. The Guardian called it as "atmospheric as a crumbling necropolis", which is presumably a good thing.

Ratking (1988)

Ruth Rendell, no less, called this "tremendously exciting... a novel both subtle and horrific". This first outing for Aurelio Zen, the Venetian detective marooned in Rome, is less about him than the corruption endemic in Italy. Zen attempts to unravel the truth behind a kidnap involving a prominent family.

The Tryst (1989)

A menacing ghost story and psychological thriller combined, the Observer called it "searingly unusual".

Vendetta (1990)

Zen returns to investigate mass murder in a heavily protected Sardinian house. Enthusiastic reviews, the London Evening Standard declaring: "Dibdin is so gifted that were he to stop crafting plots and sub-plots and rely on style alone, he would undoubtedly be carrying off numerous literary prizes."

Dirty Tricks (1991)

No dreaming spires, no Morse, Dibdin's Oxford is a town of pushy businessmen, whose dinner-party conversation centres around making and spending money. This is observed from the puzzled then envious viewpoint of a language teacher, an "over-educated, under-motivated loser". There is a death. It may or may not be murder. The Sunday Telegraph thought it a "thoroughly nasty good read... ingenious and malevolent".

Cabal (1992)

Zen vs the Vatican. Red hats, red tape, gridlock and power cuts, and Zen duelling with church and state. By now Zen is a thoroughly rounded creation, and the book was so highly regarded it is said to have come close to the Booker shortlist.

Dying of the Light (1993)

An apparently conventional Agatha Christie mystery - country-house setting, multiple suspects, plodding policemen - which is turned on its head.

Dead Lagoon (1994)

Zen returns to Venice to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy American at a time when right-wing politicians are in the ascendant in the city. He solves the crime (of course) but his home town summons all kinds of memories, and in the course of his investigation he is let down by just about everybody. The Independent on Sunday thought the thriller "reminds us how short-changed we often are by lesser practitioners of the genre".

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments