Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin

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Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An Aurelio Zen mystery set in Venice with an excellent plot and good characterisation. Almost as good are the desciptions of Venice and its politics which bring the crumbling city alive.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 354 Date: June 1995
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571173470

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I've long been a fan of detective novels and particularly of the "police procedurals" type. That's the one where the gallant, over-worked policeman sets out to solve the mystery and generally does so, despite the hindrances provided by his colleagues and the general public.

I'd heard of Aurelio Zen, the hero of Michael Dibdin's series of detective novels, but somehow the name had put me off. It sounded vaguely oriental. Then I had to do a very quick trip to the library one week - dumping my books on the counter and grabbing the first six from the returned books section before dashing out of the other door - and found that I had an Aurelio Zen novel. Since then I've been hooked.

Our hero is with the Criminalpol in Rome, but he has personal reasons for wanting a temporary transfer back to Venice, the city of his birth, where his family still has a home. Whilst appearing to investigate complaints of harassment made by a family friend, Contessa Zulian, he's actually looking into the possible abduction of an American from an island in the Venetian lagoon. Some of his methods are unorthodox, even unethical and he has to examine his own conscience when a fellow detective is brutally murdered. Throw in a good helping of local politics and corrupt local politicians and you have the makings of an excellent story.

The story is dominated by the city itself, with the title coming from the lagoon in which Venice is situated - the Laguna Morta. This isn't a book written by a casual visitor. Michael Dibdin lived and worked in Italy for four years and when he writes of the cities in which the Zen novels are set he brings them to life in a way which few travel books are capable of doing. It's a while since I was last in Venice but his descriptions of the mists which swirl around the city took me back there. When he wrote of the rats which are seen around the canals as the tide recedes and even more frequently in the buildings I was reminded of why I wasn't overly keen on some of it at the time.

I did find myself following Zen as he moved around the city. There are two excellent maps, of the city and the wider lagoon, at the beginning of the book and whilst the story could easily be followed without referring to these once, I found that they added to my enjoyment. It's not just the physical architecture of the city, the damp, crumbling buildings, that's depicted so well either - the political situation is given a good airing too. The lagoon is being poisoned by the industries situated in and around Mestre on the mainland. Jobs and housing are in short supply in Venice itself, so the city is becoming little more than a tourist destination. One politician suggests that ultimately the city will become a Disney theme park with regular shows for visitors. It's a thought to frighten anyone and it's easy to see how it could persuade people to support the views of a clever politician.

There's no physical description of Aurelio Zen in any of the books that I've read and he appears in my mind as a rather shadowy figure. If you're a fan of Ruth Rendell's homely and honest Inspector Wexford, or P D James's aesthetic Dalgliesh then Zen will not necessarily be to your taste. He's in Venice for dishonest, even illegal reasons and he's capable of manipulating circumstances without regard to the consequences. He relentlessly pursues the criminals and only occasionally wonders if his own motives would stand close scrutiny. If I was to make a comparison then it would have to be with Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus.

Characters are drawn well but without being stereotypes. It's easy to make the duplicitous wife or the charismatic politician into a two dimensional figure but I liked the fact that none of Dibdin's characters are wholly good or wholly bad. All have their strengths and weaknesses. There's the lady with a heart of gold but "there were two ways of making sure everyone in Venice knew something: you could either get every parish priest in the city to read it out after Mass, or you could tell Rosalba Morosini."

The story cracks along at a fair pace. It's well-written and very easy to read. My Italian is minimal and I coped quite easily with the occasional word or two in the native language. The story gripped. I began reading it one evening and finally finished the story in the early hours of the following morning. Dibdin does seem to specialise in enigmatic endings (or "a hauntingly ambiguous finale" as The Guardian said of another book in the series.) If I had to be picky I would say that the ending was not quite as strong as the rest of the book had led me to expect, but I would still find it difficult to give less than four stars.

The books do form part of a series, but they're very loosely woven together. I've read them out of sequence and it hasn't spoiled my enjoyment - unlike some of Ian Rankin's Rebus books which do give away quite a bit of what has happened in earlier novels. You might realise that the lady friend you are reading about now will be supplanted because of what you know of another novel but these are points which are peripheral to the main plot.

All in all, if you're a fan of the genre then this is a book (and a series) not to be missed.

We think you'll also enjoy River of Shadows: A Commissario Soneri Mystery by Valerio Varesi.

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