Excerpted from : Zen and the Heart of Modern Relationships
Financial Times, 14 January 2011
The protagonist in contemporary crime fiction – cop, private detective or, as in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, a private citizen (in the unlikely form of a business journalist) – is often pitted against nasty capitalists and/or politicians. The latter may not have committed the central crime but they are complicit in some way, direct or indirect. Cops, at least in fiction, have become heroes of liberal values – wearily, doggedly, angrily sifting for the truth through the mess left by greedy, privileged and hypocritical rulers so that society can be based on something resembling justice.
And not just in Scandinavia. Italy enters the cop lists with 'Zen' (BBC1, Sundays), a Venetian who in early middle age has found himself with a bust marriage and a stalled career. As a famed but un-promoted detective in Rome’s murder squad, a reputation for honesty is not always to his advantage. One of the main strengths of this stylish, absorbing short series (pace my colleague Isabel Berwick’s reservations in this column last week) is its fine rendering of the world of Italian officialdom, where power and patronage are more important than talent and ambition. The falsest move is to break with one’s patron – a much worse career move, even for a policeman, than breaking the law.
The series of novels featuring Aurelio Zen was created by the late British writer Michael Dibdin, who in years at the University of Perugia gained an insight into Italian society and mores. Zen is both hero and anti-hero. He rolls with the punches and placates the bosses but, in the end, goes for the real criminal, not the convenient scapegoat or the quick burial of the affair that authority favoured. Rufus Sewell is too handsome for the character Dibdin created – and Zen’s lover, the Italian actress Caterina Murino, is achingly beautiful – but he plays him with the right mixture of diffidence and inner strength. He is a man who doesn’t set himself up to be any better than the sharky, corrupt waters in which he must swim, but who cleaves his way through with his reputation unscathed. As those about him try to figure out what his game is, he quietly demonstrates that it is no more than behaving like a good cop in a naughty world.
Italian writers of gialli – crime novels, literally “yellows”, after the covers of the first books – are largely unknown in the Anglophone world. Only the Sicilian Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano has had a sustained following in English translation; the Italian-made television adaptation 'Montalbano’s Croquettes' (BBC4, December 27) made a telling contrast to the British-made 'Zen'. The Swedish creations – Chief Inspector Wallander, Inspector Beck and the journalist Mikael Blomkvist – skilfully as they are drawn, seem excessive in their despair over a society as relatively rich, well-ordered and pleasant as theirs. The Italians labour under no such disadvantage. The gialli are a way of revealing the real seaminess and venality of too much of the Italian political caste – and of showing that a concern for truth, modestly but defiantly pursued, still pulses through the peninsula.