Sunday, January 30, 2011

Aurelio Zen eats a hamburger

Ratking is the first in a series of police procedurals starring detective Aurelio Zen. The author, Michael Dibdin, continued with around a dozen other Zen novels.

Aurelio Zen is an honest and dedicated crime fighter in the rottenly corrupt atmosphere of Italian politics and policing. In Ratking, he solves a kidnapping, implicating members of the victim's family; however, all the perps get off. Dibdin follows many precedents in crime fiction, including the use of meals to punctuate the pace of the investigation and to illuminate Zen's character and his relationship to the people he interviews. Earlier detectives like Maigret, Hercule Poirot, and even Sherlock Holmes had quirky food preferences; the convention continues in works by Donna Leon (Commissario Guido Brunetti) and Andrea Camilleri (inspector Salvo Montalbano) and many others.

Ratking has one slightly offbeat food theme: during the course of the novel, Aurelio Zen's relationship with his American girlfriend Ellen is hitting a low point. She comes to see him in Perugia, the site of the kidnapping where he is temporarily posted. They go on a picnic, but the weather is bad and they are forced to eat in the car:
"Ellen started to unwrap the food: a mound of ricotta, slices of cooked ham, olives in oil, half a loaf of bread. On a warm sunny day in the open air it might have been idyllic. Eaten off sheets of wrapping paper balanced precariously on their shivering knees, the cheese looked a disgusting white excrescence, the ham pale and sickly, and the olives slimy. Even the wine, a heavy red, was a failure." (p. 182-183)
At the very end, Zen returns to his home base in Rome and Ellen invites him for a simple dinner, where he tells her how he solved the crime. Although she said the food would be simple, he's a bit shocked to see "Findus 100% Beef American-style Hamburgers" on the label of a "shiny packet." She broils the meat and warms some buns. Then:
"She served the hamburgers wrapped in paper napkins, and brought a liter bottle of Peroni beer from the fridge. The hamburgers were an unhappy hybrid of American and European elements. The meat, processed cheese, and ketchup tried to be as cheerfully undemanding as a good hamburger should, but were shouted down by the Dijon mustard, the pungent onions, and the chewy rolls.

"Zen began dismantling his hamburger, eating the more appetizing bits with the fork and discarding the rest." (p. 257-260)
Of course she then tells him her plans for the rest of her life -- which don't include him.

I enjoyed this tightly-plotted and suspenseful novel. I also read Cosi Fan Tutti, a later Dibden-Zen work, but found it a little too contrived, especially the effort to reproduce in modern Naples the plot of the Mozart opera of that title.

My friend Sheila recommended this author, and told me that the Zen novels are currently being made into a BBC TV series in the UK. They will also air on PBS. IMDB lists 3 episodes so far, all this year -- I eagerly hope to watch them.

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