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