Blood Rain by Michael Dibdin

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Blood Rain by Michael Dibdin

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: It's not the best of the Aurelio Zen series by any means. Set in Sicily there are poorly-characterised Mafiosi and hints of Lesbianism just for effect. The plot is weak for most of the book. Read it only if you must read the whole series.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 284 Date: April 2000
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571202888

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If "Blood Rain" had been the first Aurelio Zen mystery that I'd read, it would also have been my last. I finished the book but it was with more of a sigh of relief than enjoyment. Aurelio Zen is the Italian detective who stars in a long-running series of novels by Michael Dibdin. They're set in various parts of Italy and I've enjoyed every one - until now.

Zen has been given the posting that's he's always dreaded - to Sicily - where's he's been sidelined into a meaningless liaison job. To complicate matters, the woman who might, or might not, be his daughter is responsible for the installation of a computer network in the building where he's working. A decomposed and unidentifiable body is found in a locked railway carriage. Is it the son of one of the local Mafia families? Zen is not officially on the case, but he can't help becoming involved.

I'd better begin by admitting to a bias. I'm not too keen on fiction about organised crime, even if it's written by one of my favourite writers, Ian Rankin. In order for there to be some balance the criminals are shown to have a more sympathetic side. Personally I prefer to remember the murder, prostitution and drug dealing that produces their income. In Blood Rain the Mafiosi are two-dimensional: they're stupid, bumbling idiots. Some of it could be written for comedy. Even their violence doesn't seem quite real and none of it rang true. It was more like farce.

I was put off too by the hint of lesbianism, only this time it's not because of the subject matter but because of the way that it's handled. Zen's daughter, Carla Arduini, strikes up a friendship with Corinna Nunziatella, the judge handling the railway murder. There's a hint that Corinna has fallen in love with Carla, but I had no feeling of any chemistry between them. The possibility of a lesbian affair seemed to have been included for effect rather than because it moved the plot forward. The situations brought about by this supposed passion could have been worked with a simpler explanation.

The plot is good in parts. It starts reasonably well, but then meanders for three-quarters of the book. It doesn't even meander very interestingly. On the other hand the last forty or so pages are good and the finish is surprising, even shocking. I certainly didn't expect it. Dibdin is the master of the ambiguous ending and this is better than most. It sounds odd to say that if three-quarters of the book could have been better-plotted it would have been a good book, but I'm afraid it's true.

In contrast to the plot, the writing is excellent and a pleasure to read. Dibdin has a keen ear for dialogue and the delivery is sharp and incisive. Sometimes he's laugh-out-loud funny and a keen observer of people. Characters (other than those dreadful Mafiosi) are well-developed. I warmed to Zen himself - sharper than he would wish to seem and not too certain of which side of the law he operates on. Carla and Corinna came across surprisingly well, as in the Zen books the women usually have poorer characterisation.

Computers play a part in the story, but somehow it wasn't a convincing part and I suspect that anyone with an in-depth knowledge of the installation of a network would not be particularly impressed. It just passed muster for an innocent like me.

In the Aurelio Zen books Dibdin is excellent at evoking place. When I read Dead Lagoon, set in Venice, it was a detective story and a travel book rolled into one. In this book Zen is based in the three-thousand-year-old city of Catania on the east coast of Sicily and in the shadow of Mount Etna. There are some wonderful word pictures of the city and the island, but I think the one that will stay with me the longest is of Zen sitting outside in the dark, looking at a blood-red slash across the sky and realising that it was the lava streaming down the side of the erupting volcano. I liked too the descriptions of the stretches of motorway unconnected to any road which had been built in the south of the island - and of the dubious land deals which led to their construction. There's dramatic landscape and human poverty and corruption all rolled into one. If I had to be picky I'd have liked a map, but Google Earth came up trumps.

Each of the Zen books can be read as a stand-alone novel but there is a benefit to reading the series. I'd recommend this book if you feel that you must read it for completeness, otherwise I probably wouldn't bother. If you've never read a Zen book this isn't the place to start - virtually any of the others would be better.

If you like this type of book, you might like to read this review of Donna Leon's Fatal Remedies

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