Cabal by Michael Dibdin

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Cabal by Michael Dibdin

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: One of the best of Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, set in Rome and the Vatican. It's well-worth buying as you're likely to come back to it in the future.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: May 1993
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 0571168337

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The last Aurelio Zen book I read was Blood Rain and it disappointed. I'm used to Michael Dibdin being something above the ordinary and he simply wasn't in that book. I began to wonder if I'd read the best of him and it was with some trepidation that I bought "Cabal".

It's probably the best of his Aurelio Zen books.

Late one November evening Prince Ludovico Ruspante fell a hundred and fifty feet to his death in the chapel at St Peter's in Rome. Despite this being in the Vatican, over which the Italian authorities have no jurisdiction, Aurelio Zen is called in to investigate the death. The Curia would like it to be assumed that this was a case of suicide, but Zen remains unconvinced and wants some answers. Unfortunately, particularly for the people concerned, several witnesses meet with a violent death before they can tell Zen what they know.

I was hooked by the bottom of the first page. It's a long time since I was in St Peter's, but Dibdin took me back there and I could feel the horror as the body came tumbling down from the dome. If you suffer from vertigo you might find this just a little too realistic for your taste. I certainly did. The story is superb and moves along swiftly, with lots of intricate twists and turns and it has a more satisfying ending than many of the Zen books. It has been said that Dibdin is the master of the enigmatic ending, but this one certainly isn't in that class.

Cabal has been in the bookshops for thirteen years now, but it still seems fresh. I didn't notice the absence of mobile phones or the latest technology. Part of the reason for this is that the dialogue is timeless. Zen has been wrongly accused of sending information to a newspaper, but he agrees that it was him and adds:

"There hasn't been enough aggravation in my life recently. I'd been wondering what to do about it."

It is, of course, Zen who carries the book. Of all the literary Italian detectives, including Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti and Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Salvo Montalbano, Zen is the most vivid, the most fully-formed. He's not always certain which side of the law he operates on and is quite happy to condone corruption. He's shady, infinitely likeable and would probably be quite unpleasant in real life. Tania Biacis, the woman in Zen's life, is more believable than most of the numerous girlfriends in the series, with her love of fashion and the moonlighting which funds it. It's a male-dominated book though, but one which will appeal to both men and women.

Dibdin has obviously done a lot of research, not only into how the Papal Curia operates but also into the fashion industry. There's all the superficiality and ridiculous lionising of the latest 'talent' and I couldn't help thinking of the Emperor's new clothes.

Part of the reason for the preponderance of males in the book is that a good deal of it is set in the Vatican. Post "The Da Vinci Code" it's easy to assume that the Catholic church is less than honourable in all its dealings, but Dibdin shows a slightly different side with the Curia anxious to have the matter of Ruspante's death cleared as quickly as possible and with as little fuss. If that means that evidence will need to be adjusted, then so be it. It's for everyone's good of course.

There's quite a bit of historical background in the book. Occasionally I felt that it was slightly overdone, but generally it was pertinent and added to the story. It's balanced by the fact that Dibdin is a very witty and accomplished writer. Occasionally I found myself rereading passages simply for the pleasure that the writing gave.

If you're new to Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series then this would not be a bad place to start although "Ratking" has the distinction of being the first in the series. There are some sexual references and violence but nothing that should offend the average adult. If this book appeals to you then reviews of other Dibdin books are listed to the left. You might also like to read Donna Leon - Fatal Remedies would be a good place to start or Andrea Camilleri's The Shape of Water. Be warned though, that neither is as good as Dibdin at his best.

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Booklists.jpg Cabal by Michael Dibdin is in the Top Ten Crime Novels.


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