Michael Dibdin’s cynical sleuth Aurelio Zen first appeared in Ratking (1988).
In this masterpiece of psychological suspense, Italian Police Commissioner Aurelio Zen is dispatched to investigate the kidnapping of Ruggiero Miletti, a powerful Perugian industrialist. But nobody much wants Zen to succeed: not the local authorities, who view him as an interloper, and certainly not Miletti's children, who seem content to let the head of the family languish in the hands of his abductors - if he's still alive.
Was Miletti truly the victim of professionals? Or might his kidnapper be someone closer to home: his preening son Daniele, with his million-lire wardrobe and his profitable drug business? His daughter, Cinzia, whose vapid beauty conceals a devastating secret? The perverse Silvio, or the eldest son Pietro, the unscrupulous fixer who manipulates the plots of others for his own ends?
As Zen tries to unravel this rat's nest of family intrigue and official complicity, Michael Dibdin gives us one of his most accomplished thrillers, a chilling masterpiece of police procedure and psychological suspense.
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; dealing with dangerous kidnappers, a powerful and easily offended family, and some highly-placed people who want the case to go away quietly.
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. 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 - and it all takes place in a distinctive Perugia setting.
About Michael Dibdin:
Michael Dibdin was born in 1947. He went to school in Northern Ireland, and later to Sussex University and the University of Alberta in Canada. He lived in Seattle. After completing his first novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in 1978, he spent four years in Italy teaching English at the University of Perugia. His second novel, A Rich Full Death, was published in 1986. It was followed by Ratking in 1988, which won the Gold Dagger Award for the Best Crime Novel of the year and introduced us to his Italian detective - Inspector Aurelio Zen.
Dibdin was married three times. He died in 2007.