Aurelio Zen – from book to screen

For some reason I never read the first three of Michael Dibdin’s detective novels set in Italy (Ratking, Vendetta and Cabal) until I watched the first episodes of the BBC’s new series featuring the Venetian cop and starring Rufus Sewell (I’ve read Dead Lagoon and a couple of the later books). Dibdin’s first Zen novel, Ratking, was never intended to be the first of a series, he said, but he was asked for more and so wrote more. Ratking was written about Perugia, the city in Umbria where Dibdin had taught, and the sense of the city and a region different from Rome, where Zen works, is clearly brought across in the novel (which I’ve just finished).

Ratking concerns a kidnapping, of prominent industrialist Ruggiero Miletti: the beginning of the novel consists of a series of telephone calls, firstly from Antonio Crepi, to put pressure on the relevant Minister to accelerate the negotiations for Miletti’s release, which have so far been carried out entirely without state interference. As minister speaks to functionary, and so on down the chain, Aurelio Zen is put in charge of the case – he has previous kidnapping investigation experience, but has been doing drudge-work at the Ministry of the Interior after some apparent cock-up in 1979. He travels to Perugia, encountering hostility and red-tape, and is, almost imediately, confronted by the murder of the Milettis’ lawyer who was handling the negotiations.

The characters are well-drawn, the family nicely introduced at dinner at Crepi’s, to which Zen is invited, and becoming better known as the book progresses. Perugia and Italy become characters of their own, too, in Dibdin’s almost lyrical prose. Zen is an outsider in more ways than one, and his initial detachment gives way to a determination to find an explanation. Although he has integrity, he is not above bending the truth to suit himself and the investigation, particularly when a family with as much influence as the Milettis can have him removed just as easily as Crepi had him assigned.

For some reason, Ratking is actually the third episode of the TV series. The TV version is enjoyable, but only the bare bones of the plot remain – the kidnapping of Miletti, the murder of the lawyer, the resolution of the kidnapping – but the updating of the setting to the present day (rather than the early 1980s when the novel was written) means that some of the details Dibdin employs to great effect in the book are not used in the TV adaptation. The whole episode is set in Rome, rather than in Perugia; Pietro and Daniele Miletti have vanished from the plot; likewise Ivy Cook, Silvio Miletti’s secretary, which results in some major plot reconfiguration; and the sense that Zen is a loner in a foreign land is gone – in the TV version he’s established in the Criminalpol with colleagues he has known for a while. Ben Miles has been previously established as a Ministry functionary who provides Zen with the corruption he needs to battle, and in this episode, Zen’s boss, hospitalized due to a heart attack in ‘Cabal’, has been replaced by a by-the-book Swiss, set up to be the antithesis of the laid-back Italians.

I didn’t have a problem with all the English actors speaking English rather than attempting Italian accents (apart from Caterina Murino, playing Tania, a character who doesn’t appear in the novel) – after all, Dibdin wrote his books entirely in English, though including Italian words where there are no direct English equivalents. And I liked the different English accents being used to replicate the different Italian accents which would be used. Rufus Sewell is extremely easy on the eye, and makes quite a good Zen, but he’s at least 10 years too young for for the character – who’s described as “about fifty” in the book – as is Catherine Spaak, playing Zen’s not-so-elderly mother. The setting, not being Perugia, means that the series seems rather generic, and the Sardinian setting of part of Vendetta is also lost from the TV adaptation.

So, I enjoyed the TV adaptations as television, but – on the evidence of ‘Ratking’ – not as faithful adaptations of Dibdin’s very well-written books.

Incidentally, in the book, Gianluigi Santucci (Cinzia Miletti’s husband, also an outsider, being a Tuscan) gives Zen the analogy of a ratking – in a situation where rats have so little space to move that their tails fuse together, but still can survive – to describe the Milettis. I wonder if Terry Pratchett, in whose book The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents a ratking also features, had read Dibdin’s book, or whether the concept of a ratking is more universal than I realised.

This entry was posted in 2011 New Reads, Crime fiction, Fiction, Filmed adaptations, Read on my Kindle, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Aurelio Zen – from book to screen

  1. Is it wrong that I saw Sewell and immediately thought “COUNT ADHEMAR”? In my defense, A Knight’s Tale is tons of fun.

    • Ela says:

      I haven’t seen A Knight’s Tale, but I can quite see why you would make the connection! Sewell makes a pretty good hero (I’d love to have seen him as Septimus in Stoppard’s Arcadia), despite the villainous film roles, and I really liked him as Will Ladislaw in the BBC’s adaptation of Middlemarch and (completely different) as Seth Starkadder in Cold Comfort Farm.

  2. Jenny says:

    Hey! I just got a copy of this and couldn’t think where I had heard of it before. Now I remember I saw that this miniseries was being made — I am awfully fond of Rufus Sewell.

    • Ela says:

      The mini-series is all very beautifully-shot, and it’s quite humorous. It can’t possibly replicate the nuances and detail of Dibdin’s novels, particularly since each episode is 90 minutes, but it’s not a bad attempt.

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