In The Spotlight: Michael Dibdin’s Ratking

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. We’d like to think that when a crime occurs, the culprit’s caught and justice is served. But we also know that that doesn’t always happen in real life. It’s enough to make a person quite cynical about how the law works. But sometimes, that cynicism turns out to be quite useful. To get a sense of how this happens, let’s take a closer look at Michael Dibdin’s cynical sleuth Aurelio Zen. Today we’ll turn the spotlight on Ratking, the first of the Zen novels.

Zen is working in the Ministry of the Interior in Rome when he’s suddenly seconded to Perugia to work on a high-profile kidnapping case. Wealthy magnate Ruggerio Miletti has been kidnapped and although there are no reports that he’s been killed, the Perugia Questore hasn’t made much progress in finding him or his abductors. The Miletti family is extremely powerful and influential, so the police have every motivation to be of service to them.

On the other hand, neither do the police want to appear to be obviously in the pay of the Milettis. So managing this case will be an extremely delicate matter. It doesn’t help matters that the police in Perguia are not exactly thrilled to have an incomer from Rome telling them what to do. So Zen has his work cut out for him as the saying goes.

He soon finds that this is a much more complicated case than it seems on the surface. For one thing, there’s little information about the kidnappers. For another, the members of the Miletti family are wary of working with the police. Then there comes a break in the case. The kidnappers make a ransom demand and give the family instructions on how to proceed. The Milettis have been specifically warned of course not to involve any police in the exchange of money for the captive. But plans are made for Zen, who isn’t a Perugia ‘regular,’ to be present.

Their plan doesn’t work out as intended, and that draws Zen even more deeply into a very dangerous situation. On the one hand, he has official status as a police officer seconded by the request of the Perugia Questore. On the other, he’s dealing with dangerous kidnappers, a powerful and easily offended family, and some highly-placed people who want the case to go away quietly. But Zen is no fool (more on his character shortly), and in the end, he gets to the truth about the kidnapping, despite the fact that he is more or less on his own.

And that’s one of the most important elements in this novel. As he soon learns, Zen cannot count on co-operation from the members of the Miiletti family. Each of Miletti’s grown children has a personal agenda, and none of them is interested in telling Zen what that agenda is. The same might be said of the people Zen works with at the questore. In fact, I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that he’s fairly certain one of them is a ‘plant’ whose instructions are to report on anything he does or says. So a very big part of Zen’s task is to work through the tissues of lies, obfuscation and political gamesmanship to do his job, which is to catch the kidnappers.

And Zen is canny enough to do it. He is at least as cynical as anyone else with whom he comes into contact, so he’s quite well aware that he can’t count on support from anyone. But that’s just the aspect of his personality that allows him to match wits with his opponents. And he proves to be quite adept at getting done what needs to be done. It’s easy to be on his side as he tries to figure out what the next moves in the game will be and work them to his advantage. Readers who prefer a less noir-ish perspective on human nature will be disappointed; there aren’t really any ‘clean’ heroes here. And even though Zen is on ‘the side of the angels,’ his hands aren’t exactly clean either. I don’t want to spoil the novel, but I can say this.  Zen negotiates the ‘minefield’ he’s in because he is not naïve nor does he go ‘by the book.’

Another element that runs through this novel is the perspective it gives us on Italy and Italian life. As those familiar with Italy know, there isn’t really a unified ‘Italian culture.’ And this novel highlights the mutual dislike of Northern Italians (Zen for instance is from Venice) and Southern Italians. There’s also a hearty contempt for Rome and Romans. But beyond these regional sentiments, there’s also a broader picture of the country. Dibdin provides the reader with a look at daily life, feelings about the government, dislike of the police (who are perceived as bumbling at best and corrupt at worst) and Right/Left politics. Like most societies, Italian society is complex and multifaceted, and Dibdin makes that clear.

Social class and power are important themes in this novel as well. The old saying that ‘money talks’ proves to be quite true here, and the line between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is clearly drawn. In order to get anything done, it’s best to either be powerful or know someone who is, and that element plays an important role in the story.

The novel also explores the inner workings of the Miletti family. It’s a very dysfunctional group and readers who prefer likeable characters will notice this. At the same time, the family dynamics are fascinating and Dibdin shows how the members have been influenced by culture, by their wealth and power and by the different personalities in the group.

There’s also a thread of very black humour that runs through the novel. It’s not so much a matter of witticisms as it is a cynical awareness of the way life really is. Here for instance is one of Zen’s thoughts about why the Miletti family might not be eager to work with the police:


‘Most people were happier doing business with the kidnappers, whose motives they understood and who like them had a lot to lose, then with the impersonal and perfidious agencies of the State.’


The humour may not be exactly light, but it fits with the novel.

Ratking is a cynical look at power, politics and money in a complex society. The mystery makes sense and Zen gets to the truth in a believable way that one has to respect. Well, this one did anyway. It doesn’t have a happy ending but that suits the tone of the story. And it all takes place in a distinctive Perugia setting. But what’s your view? Have you read Ratking? If you have, what elements do you see in it?



Coming Up On In The Spotlight


Monday 9 December/Tuesday 10 December – The Silent Wife – A.S.A. Harrison

Monday 16 December/Tuesday 17 December – Death of a Red Heroine – Qiu Xiaolong

Monday 23 December/Tuesday 24 December – Dead of Winter – P.J. Parrish


Filed under Michael Dibdin, Ratking

26 responses to “In The Spotlight: Michael Dibdin’s Ratking

  1. Fine analysis Margot – I remember liking the eponymous image a lot and thinking that the depiction of Italy was pretty good – shame about the secret passage though …:)

    • Sergio – Yes, I agree with you about the passage… :-) But I really did like the image. I didn’t say much about it in my spotlight because I thought it would take me a bit close to ‘spoiler-land,’ but Dibdin chose it well. And thanks for your comment about the novel’s depiction of Italy. It certainly seemed genuine and the physical descriptions quite effective. Nice to have corroboration – and thanks for the kind words.

  2. I read this book a long time ago, and I don’t remember much detail of the plot, but I do remember thinking it was a cold and unnerving book. I went on to read many of Michael Dibdin’s books, and liked them without his ever becoming one of my absolute favourites. I liked the one called Cosi fan tutti, but I think that’s partly because I am very fond of the opera of almost identical name – the book roughly follows the opera plot, which is quite an achievement.

    • Moira – There is an unnerving quality about the book in the sense that there is a lot of calculation in the book. People have, and ruthlessly follow, their own agendas, and that is rather cold. Not a book full of the ‘warmth of human kindness,’ really. But some brilliant ‘chess moves,’ and the plot keeps you moving. And thanks for reminding me of Cosi Fan Tutti. As you say, it’s not easy to follow an opera plot in a novel, but Dibdin was talented.

  3. Margot: I read the book a few years ago. Three points dominate my memory:

    1.) The author’s subtlety – I found it stood out as relatively few mysteries have genuine subtlety to their plots;
    2.) The Italian judicial system – It was so ponderous as to be almost immobile; and,
    3.) Ratking – When I learned the meaning of the word I shuddered and have never forgotten.

    • Bill – Oh, I think you’re right on all three points. The meaning of ratking is shudder-worthy, that’s for sure. and yes, the Italian judicial system really is ponderous (I very much like your choice of word). One wonders how anything actually gets done. I agree too that Dibdin uses subtlety very effectively To me that adds a layer to the novel.

  4. Thank you for featuring one of my favourite authors – I think he captured the conflicted and darker side of Italy perfectly, a world away from charming tourist sites and delicious food (although both feature a little in his books). Perhaps noirish themes and attitudes appeal more (or are at least more familiar) to those of us who have grown up in societies where corruption is more widely spread, where the police is not always on the side of the angels and where justice is imperfectly served.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You put that very well, too about the author. Dibdin does expose the darker side of Italy, but he does it in a way isn’t so unrelenting that you can’t keep reading. He also shows us, as you say, a more pleasant side (I like the descriptions of the food, too) here and there, and I think that balances the story and makes it more realistic. And for people who’ve grown up in societies with the kind of corruption (including police corruption) and other issues in this novel, it presents I think a believable picture of life.

  5. Col

    I have a couple of the author’s books but haven’t yet read them. Part of me wants to avoid them in case I get sucked into another long series!

    • Col – I know what you mean about long series, but I do recommend this one. Aurelio Zen is a great character I think.

      • Col

        Taking on board Bill’s point about the Italian legal system. From memory Carlotto’s The Fugitive deals a bit with the inadequacies of the system. I thought it was a true crime account, but I have also seen it listed as a novel. Apparently he was convicted of a murder he never committed.

        I will ponder this series, Margot!

        • Col – Oh, I’m glad you’ve reminded me of that one. It’s one I’d heard was quite good, but I’ve not (yet) read it. I must remedy that and I appreciate the prod to do so.

  6. I’m a huge fan of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels. I started reading them in the late-1990s — I think I may have even read Ratking during a trip to Italy in 1998 — eagerly awaiting each new instalment in the series as it came out. I concur with everyone’s observations about the unforgettable eponymous image in Ratking — nightmare material for a musophobe like me.

    • Angela – Musophobe or not, that image is pretty grim. Appropriate for the novel once you know what happens, but still… And this really is a fine series; I don’t blame you for being a fan. It’s a shame we’ve lost Dibdin.

  7. Loved this series and sad that he died too young.

  8. Steve W

    I blundered into Zen’s Italy through a friend giving me a paperback “A Long Finish” as a novel they couldn’t get on with. I loved it and chased down the others with growing enthusiasm. Zen is a well rounded, fascinating character in a very well written series that manages to paint in a background full of Italian colour in a totally unforced way. Amongst other things.

    • Steve – Isn’t it great to stumble onto a series one ends up loving? I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this series so much, and I have to agree that Zen is a very well-drawn character. And you have a well-taken point that the Italian backdrop isn’t self-conscious or forced at all. And that makes the series that much better.

  9. I read this one years ago but don’t remember much at all about it. I did enjoy the most recent Zen book that I read, and have more in the series to read. Nice overview, as always.

  10. I’ve only read one Zen which I really enjoyed but haven;t gone back to them. There’s only so much time for reading isn’t there? One day…

    • Sarah – Oh, I know exactly what you mean! I don’t think it’s in the least bit possible to read everything one wants. Wish they paid me to read full-time… ;-)

  11. Ron Smyth

    I have had a copy of RATKING on my TBR pile for quite some time. Your review has made me move it up closer to the top as it sounds like a book and a series that I would enjoy.

  12. Enjoyed Ratking a great deal however it was not my first Zen book I had read a later book in the series Cabal before which was a textbook example of a book being mis-sold by it’s blurb. The amazon description made it sound like a Dan Brown style thriller which is far from what this series is all about which threw me a bit and I didn’t get into the authors work until picking up Ratking a few months later.

    • LC2013 – Oh, I’m sorry to hear about that misleading blurb. So often book blurbs don’t give an accurate picture of a novel. Or they give away the entire plot. In either case it’s really frustrating. I am glad you enjoyed the Zen novels you’ve read though, even though they aren’t what you’d been led to expect at first.

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