Dibdin, Michael 1947–2007

views updated

Dibdin, Michael 1947–2007


Born March 21, 1947, in Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England; died of unexpected illness, March 30, 2007; son of Frederick John (a physicist) and Peggy (a health visitor) Dibdin; married Benita Mitbrodt, 1971 (marriage dissolved, 1979); married Sybil Sheringham, 1986 (marriage ended); married Katherine "K.K." Beck (a writer), 1997; children: (first marriage) Moselle Benita; (second marriage) Emma Yvette. Education: University of Sussex, Brighton, B.A., 1968; University of Alberta, Edmonton, M.A., 1969.


Writer. College of Technology, Belfast, Northern Ireland, part-time lecturer, 1968; held a variety of jobs in western Canada, 1969-75; International House, Perugia, Italy, English teacher, 1980-82; University of Perugia, Perugia, Italy, language assistant, 1982-84.


Gold Dagger Award, Crime Writers Association, 1988, for Ratking; New York Times notable book citation, 1991, for Dirty Tricks.



The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, J. Cape (London, England), 1978, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1979.

A Rich Full Death, J. Cape (London, England), 1986, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1999.

The Tryst, Faber (London, England), 1989, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1990.

Dirty Tricks, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1991.

The Dying of the Light, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1993.

Dark Specter, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Thanksgiving, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2001.


Ratking, Faber (London, England), 1988, Vintage Crime (New York, NY), 1997.

Vendetta, Faber (London, England), 1990, Bantam Books (New York, NY), 1991.

Cabal, Faber (London, England), 1992, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1993.

Dead Lagoon, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Cosi Fan Tutti, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1997.

A Long Finish, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1998.

Blood Rain, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1999.

And Then You Die, Faber (London, England), 2002.

Medusa, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2003.

Back to Bologna, Faber (London, England), 2005, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2006.

End Games: The Last Aurelio Zen Mystery, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2007.


(Editor) The Picador Book of Crime Writing, Picador (London, England), 1993.

(Editor) The Vintage Book of Classic Crime, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1997.

Contributor of short story "A Death in the Family" to Best Short Stories 1991, Heinemann, 1991; contributor of stories to Granta and Modern Painters, and of book reviews to the Independent on Sunday.


Novelist Michael Dibdin achieved success on two fronts. His series of crime novels featuring Italian detective Aurelio Zen have drawn praise for their comedy, deft plotting, and reflections on Italian politics, while his suspense stories are cited for their dark atmosphere and troubling conclusions about modern culture. In all, Dibdin produced sixteen novels, eleven of which feature Zen. A native of Great Britain who later moved to America, Dibdin had numerous fans on both sides of the Atlantic. A Publishers Weekly correspondent once called the author "an erudite crime writer" who "places complex characters into exacting plot puzzles that unfold in evocative prose rich in historical and geographic color."

Dibdin's first novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, brings together the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and the real-life Jack the Ripper in a plot involving a showdown between Holmes and his archrival, James Moriarty. Enhanced by Freudian innuendo and narrated by the dogged, confused Watson, the story features an ending with a twist. The novel gained wide attention, although some reviewers noted significant flaws. Novelist Kingsley Amis, writing in the New Statesman, disliked the book's stylistic modernisms and added: "The plot is wrong too: Holmes called in by Lestrade to catch Jack the Ripper. The horror of those real crimes … won't blend with the undistressing fictions of the Holmes-Watson-Doyle world." In the New York Review of Books, crime novelist and critic Julian Symons described Dibdin's novel as emblematic of its subgenre, and noted: "[The] book is a fair example, in kind and quality, of the current Sherlock Holmes fiction…. The language is pastiche, not bad of its kind but still ‘an alloy of literary pretense,’ and the story drags distinctly after a lively opening." David Pietrusza remarked in the National Review that "Dibdin's tale proceeds at a brisk gallop. Yet his thesis is definitely un-Conanical; his research shows signs of a fatal sloppiness; his depiction of Holmes's attitude toward the Yard is not at all on the mark; and his plot's denouement is certain to breed contempt among all true Holmesians."

A Rich Full Death casts British poet Robert Browning as an amateur detective in Florence, Italy, in 1855. Multiple murders, spiritualism, and Dante's Inferno play roles in the book, narrated in the form of letters written by a young American, Robert Booth, to his friend, Professor Prescott. Booth, an admirer of the then-obscure Browning, observes the poet investigating the apparent suicide of the woman with whom Booth was in love, as well as later deaths. Walter Nash, writing in the London Review of Books, deemed A Rich Full Death "a wonderful warren of literary devices," commenting that "a pastiche running to two hundred pages, immediately characterising the English of an educated 19th-century American, and more distantly yet pervasively evoking the speech-style of Browning's monologists, is no mean achievement…. What is totally pleasing is the ingenuity of the book as a literary game with ethical consequences…. It raises, in the most engaging way, such problems of mind and matter as were formulated by the mandarin who, waking from a dream, said he did not know whether he was a man dreaming about a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming about a man." In view of such strengths, Nash was relatively untroubled by his perception that "the whodunnit is not such a mystery." In a London Times review of A Rich Full Death, John Nicholson observed that the book presented "clever plotting, witty writing, and a well-judged display of historical background."

Ratking, Dibdin's third novel, marked a departure from historical pastiche and introduced the character of Police Commissioner Aurelio Zen. The complex plot deals with the kidnapping of a rich industrialist in Perugia, where Dibdin lived for several years. Marcel Berlins explained in the London Times that the plot ingredients "combine splendidly in a convincing tale reeking of authentic Italian atmosphere and politics," while Frederick Busch, reviewing for Chicago Tribune Books, applied the adjective "wonderful" to the book's dialogue, atmosphere, and detective hero.

Dibdin's fourth novel, The Tryst, is a still more ambitious departure, a psychological fable in the manner of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. The plot revolves around Aileen Mackin, an unhappily married female psychiatrist with an LSD-soaked past, and her involvement with a disturbed boy named Gary Dunn, who may remind her of a child she lost. Gary's troubled life is narrated in a story-within-the-story. In another framed narrative, the reader becomes acquainted with an old man haunted by a possible fratricide he witnessed fifty years earlier. Reviewers acknowledged the complexity and ambitiousness of the novel, sometimes approvingly and sometimes not. Joseph Coates in the Chicago Tribune remarked, "The Tryst is a novel of sly psychological suspense that for much of its length reads like a superior whodunit and then, on the last page, reveals itself to have been a ghost story—or maybe science fiction." A critic for the Bloomsbury Review termed the novel "a gripping story of the struggle with the tricks that time and memory can play," while a reviewer for Washington Post Book World wrote: "This is an odd but fascinating suspense novel … a Chinese box full of interwoven stories." In the New York Times Book Review, Candia McWilliam explained that the "scope and ambition of the novel are well beyond any comfortable formula," but added that "as a record of that unregarded and growing population recently accorded a title—‘the underclass’—it is honorable and unnerving." McWilliam also felt that Dibdin did not fully flesh out any of the characters but observed that given Dibdin's skill, he might have done so intentionally. London Review of Books critic Walter Nash wrote that although he is a fan of Dibdin's work, he found The Tryst "an uneven book," comparing it unfavorably to Ratking and A Rich Full Death.

Detective Aurelio Zen returns in Vendetta, another mystery set in Italy, in which Zen is sent to Sardinia to investigate the videotaped murder of a security-conscious architect. In the London Review of Books, Stephen Wall stated, "Michael Dibdin writes convincingly where locale is concerned and, as a thriller, Vendetta is a superior and well-informed performance. At times, however, the dialogue reads as if it has been subtitled into gangsterese." Wall also expressed the opinion that Zen is not an absorbing character.

Dibdin's next novel, Dirty Tricks, continues his tradition of experimentation. Dirty Tricks uses the crime novel form as a medium through which to satirize Britain during the tenure of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Set at Oxford, it is narrated by Tim, a teacher of English as a second language who faces extradition charges in Latin America. At a dinner party, Tim meets Karen, the wife of an affluent accountant, and an affair begins. Her husband dies, and Tim, vowing never to work again, marries Karen and lives off the estate. Patricia Craig wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, "You are riveted (if appalled) by the unabashed self-interest of Michael Dibdin's central character, intrigued by his vicissitudes, and struck by the deftness with which a reckoning (of a kind) is arranged." A reviewer for the Washington Post Book World commented, "The author's thinly disguised commentary on the readjusted class lines of contemporary Britain makes this more than just a crime novel." Robert Plunket in the New York Times Book Review observed that the work is "just like James M. Cain, only funny…. Come to think of it, maybe it's more just like Nabokov. Only fun." Plunket added, "Dirty Tricks has a few too many phony climaxes … toward the end, and they dilute the impact of what could have been some real emotion. This, however, is but a minor annoyance considering the highly sophisticated entertainment the book offers."

Dibdin's third Aurelio Zen mystery, Cabal, opens with the corpse of Prince Ludovico Ruspanti crashing from the cupola of St. Peter's Church to the pavement during Mass. Cabal includes a series of deaths, revelations about Italian political corruption, and a satire of the Milan fashion world. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Jonathan Keates expressed impatience with the aspects of the book derived from genre conventions, such as the narration of the murderer's motive—"a clot in the narrative artery which the advanced technology of the whodunit seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to remove." Regarding the author's personal contribution to the novel, however, Keates was much more complimentary. "Dibdin's skill," he observed, "lies in revitalizing these ancient mechanisms by rooting them within a series of chillingly authentic scenes from contemporary Italian life." Suggesting that even Italian readers might find pleasure in studying Dibdin's "perfectly" understood Italy, Keates concluded, "Dibdin, a more naturally gifted writer than the medium needs or deserves, can wrap even the most banal piece of plot engineering … within an atmosphere of gamey, tangible immediacy."

Dibdin published two more books in the Aurelio Zen series, Dead Lagoon and Cosi Fan Tutti, within a few years of each other. New York Times Book Review critic Marilyn Stasio noted of Dead Lagoon, "The author has transcended his own superb craftsmanship by working [two] story lines into a structure of pure steel—and by making it the foundation of a serious study of modern-day Venice." In Dead Lagoon Zen is working undercover in his native Venice to discover the whereabouts of a kidnapped American businessman. Cosi Fan Tutti finds Zen transferred to Naples to sidestep a demotion in Rome. There he tries unsuccessfully to fade into anonymity, eventually becoming embroiled in an attempt to put an end to a series of gangland-style murders. BookPage reviewer Cynthia Riggs noted of Cosi Fan Tutti: "Dibdin obviously had fun writing this book. He combines suspense and rapid pace with a remarkable sense of place, exquisitely drawn characters, and a joyful sense of farce." In the Houston Chronicle, Steven E. Alford remarked: "Cosi Fan Tutti finds Dibdin at the top of his witty and entertaining form. For readers new to Aurelio Zen, this novel will make a good starting place; then they will want to go back to Zen's first appearance in Ratking and work their way forward.

To Dibdin fans, this will mark a fresh and diverting encounter with an old and trusted friend."

The darker side of Dibdin's imagination found free rein in Dark Specter. The story revolves around a pathological cult leader in the Pacific Northwest and his followers, who stage a series of seemingly random violent acts in far-flung American cities. Into this milieu wanders Phil, a college professor seeking to understand the disappearance of his son and his wife's suicide. "Dibdin's fans may decry his having exchanged elegant, dark Venice for this glossy, plastic-colored U.S. setting," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "but his deft plotting and reliable characterization are fully present in this top-notch thriller." New Statesman and Society correspondent Douglas Kennedy found the novel "deeply disturbing," adding: "Brilliantly constructed, mutedly written with chilling finesse, Dark Specter is a contemporary house of horrors—a grim journey into the great American nowhere…. [Dibdin] comprehends the disjointed rhythms of American life—the way that society is haunted by the spectre of random malevolence, especially from those who have decided to withdraw and create their own little Utopia with apocalyptic aspirations." In Book Page, Gary Crawford concluded: "By the time I finished Dark Specter, the idea of random violence without any meaning was preferable to the alternative: a madman planning scores of murders just to settle a philosophical argument."

Dibdin returned to the Zen series with A Long Finish and Blood Rain. The former, set in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, has Zen dealing with deadly infighting among members of a tightly knit community; it shows that "this series remains a must for Italy buffs and followers of murder continental style," related Bill Ott in Booklist. In Blood Rain, the Interior Ministry posts Zen to Sicily so he can gather information on another crime-fighting force, the state police anti-Mafia squad. One member of the squad is a woman who claims to be his daughter; some others prove as corrupt as the criminals they are ostensibly pursuing. Amid murders of mobsters and police, and not knowing whom to trust, Zen finds Sicily to be his "most dangerous assignment yet," in the words of a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Booklist reviewer Ott noted that Blood Rain differed significantly from Cosi Fan Tutti and A Long Finish, in which "Zen took on an almost-comic persona." He explained, "In the heart of organized crime, the comic tone disappears." The Publishers Weekly reviewer thought Blood Rain showed off Dibdin's "manifold gifts as a storyteller," while Ott called the novel "crime fiction at its multifaceted best."

Dibdin ventured back outside the series with Thanksgiving, which is both a crime story and a study of obsession and grief. The novel's protagonist, Anthony, is a British journalist, now living in Seattle—where Dibdin settled after marrying Seattle-based mystery writer Katherine "K.K." Beck in the 1990s. Anthony's wife, Lucy, has recently been killed in a plane crash, and he is driven to discover details of her life before she met him, a topic about which she was secretive. He meets her first husband, Darryl Bob, who lives in Nevada in an isolated trailer, where he keeps salacious photographs of Lucy and recordings that provide evidence of her infidelity. Soon afterward, Darryl Bob is murdered, and Anthony becomes a suspect. A Publishers Weekly commentator found Anthony an underdeveloped character but thought the novel "perceptively questions the boundaries of intimacy and love." The reviewer, however, predicted that fans "will surely clamor for the speedy return of Aurelio Zen." Booklist critic Michael Spinella, on the other hand, deemed Thanksgiving "a wonderful departure for Dibdin," adding that the author "keeps his psychodrama suspenseful and chilling." Some critics have pointed out that Dibdin's books transcend the limitations of the crime novel genre. Stasio offered the opinion that the Aurelio Zen novels are "so delicately complex they might have been spun by spiders."

With the 2002 And Then You Die, Dibdin returns to his antihero Zen, "who takes the world-weary European cop to a new level of no-holds-barred cynicism," according to Booklist contributor Bill Ott. Zen is sequestered in Tuscany, in hiding while waiting to testify against those Mafia bosses who attempted to murder him while on duty in Sicily. For a time, it seems that all may be right in Zen's life, for he even finds a new love interest, but then mayhem erupts once more and it appears the Mafia is on his trail. He is forced to flee to Iceland and then to Rome in this "diverting mystery," as a Publishers Weekly contributor termed the book. The same reviewer went on to call And Then You Die "a slight, but enjoyable morsel," a view seemingly shared by New Statesman correspondent Nicola Upson, who felt the same work "reads more like a 166-page epilogue to Blood Rain than an original work."

Dibdin's ninth installment in the "Aurelio Zen" series, Medusa, finds Zen working for the Interior Ministry and investigating the discovery of a thirty-year-old corpse in the Italian Alps. The trail leads to the ultra-secret Medusa Project and an attempt by the military to overthrow the Italian government. Ott, writing in Booklist, called the Zen books a "richly satisfying series, which has come to define the new European procedural." Similar praise came from a Publishers Weekly contributor who felt Medusa was "a slyly intelligent page-turner by a contemporary master of the form." A Kirkus Reviews critic concluded that with this new installment in the series, Dibdin, "a champion assayer of politics and bedfellows … herein masters the art of misdirection."

With Back to Bologna, Zen is investigating the death of a millionaire in Bologna. The victim owned a soccer club as well as a dairy concern that may be involved in tax evasion. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found this book a "lively escapade [that] casts modern Italy's many social and political problems in an amusing but realistic light." Ott, writing in Booklist, also had praise for the work, calling it a "tasty blend of tragedy and comedy."

End Games: The Last Aurelio Zen Mystery, stands as Dibdin's eleventh and final novel featuring the world-weary police detective Zen, as the author passed away in March 2007 due to an unexpected illness. The book was published posthumously later that year. The story is set in the remote hill towns of Calabria, a region in southern Italy, south of Naples. Zen, who is there filling in for the chief of police in one of the towns, is called to action when a visiting American lawyer working for a shady Hollywood film company is kidnapped. Zen soon discovers that the lawyer is related to a wealthy family in the area. After the lawyer's mutilated corpse is discovered among the ruins of his ancestor's former estate in a deserted hilltop town, Zen sets out to unravel this newest mystery.

Despite a few criticisms, overall many reviewers had high praise for Dibdin's final novel, especially his ability to so aptly portray the region. Michael S. Gant, in his review of the book for Metroactive, asserted that "Dibdin's ear for modern American lingo rings a little false, but his feel for Italy remains impeccable." Andrew Taylor, in his review of the book for the Independent, observed that "the plot is not entirely plausible, but this does not matter. Dibdin grounds it in convincing details. As usual, he is brilliant at evoking without sentimentality or censure both the physicality of an Italian region and the characteristics of its inhabitants…. His characters, even the minor ones, are evoked with sharp-edged definition." Throughout the book, "Dibdin gleefully mocks Mezzogiorno celebrity culture—the film personalities, trumpery intellectuals and other tawdry figures who orbit southern Italian public life. The prose is pithy (a village beauty exudes a ‘faint caprine odour like mild goat cheese’), the action tense and the plot satisfyingly dense. End Games, in short, has all the bite of vintage Zen; I wish we could have more," wrote Ian Thomson in his review of the book for the Spectator. "While satire invariably triumphs over sentiment when his colorful Calabrian lowlifes are joined in their criminal games by the ruthless Americans from the film company, Dibdin also gives his detective Zen-like moments of enlightenment into the soul of the region," observed New York Times Book Review critic Marilyn Stasio.

Of the Aurelio Zen books, a Telegraph writer observed that "Dibdin deliberately tapped into British middle-class fantasies in the Aurelio Zen series. The appeal of the books lay partly in his decision to set each one in a different part of Italy (starting in the beautiful medieval city of Perugia), but also in the character of Zen himself: Dibdin invented him as an outsider, coming to Perugia as a stranger, much as Didbin himself had done when he arrived to teach English at the university there in the late 1970s."



St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.


Bloomsbury Review, January, 1990, review of The Tryst.

Booklist, August, 1998, Bill Ott, review of A Long Finish, p. 1974; March 15, 2000, Bill Ott, review of Blood Rain, p. 1333; March 1, 2001, Michael Spinella, review of Thanksgiving, p. 1226; May 1, 2002, Bill Ott, "Zen and the Art of Series Maintenance," p. 1552; February 15, 2004, Bill Ott, review of Medusa, p. 1041; September 1, 2006, Bill Ott, review of Back to Bologna, p. 60.

Book Page, February, 1996, Gary Crawford, review of Dark Specter; May, 1997, Cynthia Riggs, review of Cosi Fan Tutti.

Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1990, Joseph Coates, review of The Tryst.

Houston Chronicle, July 23, 1997, Steven E. Alford, review of Cosi Fan Tutti.

Independent (London, England), July 13, 2007, Andrew Taylor, review of End Games: The Last Aurelio Zen Mystery.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2003, review of Medusa, p. 1425.

Library Journal, June 1, 1999, Rex E. Klett, review of A Rich Full Death, p. 186.

London Review of Books, May 4, 1989, Walter Nash, review of The Tryst, pp. 22-23; June 28, 1990, Stephen Wall, review of Vendetta, p. 18.

National Review, August 18, 1978, David Pietrusza, review of The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.

New Statesman, June 30, 1978, Kingsley Amis, review of The Last Sherlock Holmes Story; January 7, 2002, Nicola Upson, review of And Then You Die, p. 39.

New Statesman and Society, September, 1995, Douglas Kennedy, review of Dark Specter, p. 38.

New York Review of Books, August 17, 1978, Julian Symons, review of The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, pp. 14-15.

New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, Candia McWilliam, review of The Tryst, p. 21; October 6, 1991, Robert Plunket, review of Dirty Tricks, p. 10; January 9, 1994, Marilyn Stasio, review of Dead Lagoon; October 11, 1998, Marilyn Stasio, review of A Long Finish, p. 28; April 2, 2000, Marilyn Stasio, review of Blood Rain, p. 28; August 26, 2007, Marilyn Stasio, "Wild Calabria," p. 20.

Publishers Weekly, November 27, 1995, review of Dark Specter, p. 50; May 17, 1999, review of A Rich Full Death, p. 59; March 27, 2000, review of Blood Rain, p. 57; January 29, 2001, review of Thanksgiving, p. 62; May 6, 2002, review of And Then You Die, p. 39; January 26, 2004, review of Medusa, p. 234; July 24, 2006, review of Back to Bologna, p. 40; June 25, 2007, review of End Games, p. 37.

Spectator (London, England), August 4, 2007, "Dark Heart of the Deep South," p. 33; August 1, 2007, Ian Thomson, review of End Games.

Times (London, England), October 24, 1986, John Nicholson, review of A Rich Full Death; May 5, 1988, Marcel Berlins, review of Ratking.

Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 1991, Patricia Craig, review of Dirty Tricks, p. 27; June 5, 1992, Jonathan Keates, review of Cabal, p. 21; September 18, 1998, Alessia Del Guido, review of A Long Finish, p. 28; September 24, 1999, Caroline Moorehead, review of Blood Rain, p. 22.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), March 5, 1989, Frederick Busch, review of Ratking.

Washington Post Book World, March 10, 1991, review of The Tryst, p. 12; September 20, 1992, review of Dirty Tricks, p. 12.


British Council Web site,http://www.contemporarywriters.com/ (October 16, 2006), "Michael Dibdin Biography."

January,http://januarymagazine.com/ (January, 1999), Linda Richards, "A Little Wine with Michael Dibdin."

Metroactive,http://metroactive.com/ (June, 2008), Michael S. Gant, review of End Games.



Guardian (London, England), April 4, 2007.

Independent (London, England), April 5, 2007.

New York Times Book Review, April 6, 2007, Margalit Fox, "Michael Dibdin, 60, Detective Novelist, Is Dead."

Telegraph (London, England), May 4, 2007.