(Faber e-book, originally published 1990)
This, the third of Dibdin’s crime novels featuring Italian policeman Aurelio Zen, is set primarily in Rome. Zen’s new relationship with Tania Biacis, tentatively begun in Vendetta is here fully-fledged, though warning cracks in their relationship are already beginning to show. A man, Ludovico Ruspanti, falls to his death inside St Peter’s basilica, watched by several people at an evening service. It’s thought to be suicide, as usual, but to check, an official from the Italian police is sought to investigate: tonight it’s Zen who is on call. Wanting to get back to Tania’s embraces, Zen makes only a very desultory inspection, though he soon realizes that the man can’t possibly have committed suicide. Willing to go along with the Vatican’s line, he agrees that Ruspanti’s death was a suicide.
The following day, however, the security guard who had been following Ruspanti, but who had lost him in the dome, is found dead, and an anonymous letter sent to and published by most of the national newspapers suggests that the eminent victim was murdered, and that there has been a cover-up by the Vatican in order to conceal a currency dealing scandal. His job threatened, Zen is ordered to investigate properly; his investigation leads to Milan, where the currency fraud investigation is ongoing by the judiciary of that city.
Woven within this is the mysterious ‘Cabal’ who may have wanted to kill Ruspanti for threatening to reveal their secrets, the fashion designer Falco, and Zen’s conviction that Tania is having an affair (in many episodes of dramatic irony he’s seen to be drawing completely incorrect inferences about her behaviour and actions) when in fact she’s just trying to conceal from Zen the very lucrative business sideline in Friulian foodstuffs she runs from the Ministry office. It’s interesting and slightly frustrating to the reader to see Zen behaving like such an idiot about Tania when he’s a very observant, intelligent and competent detective. However, it’s probably quite realistic, given Zen’s previous history with women, and the nearly twenty-year age difference between him and Tania; not to mention that he’s rather a traditionalist when it comes to women.
Dibdin’s prose is often wry and ironic, descriptive yet detached, and Italy is portrayed lovingly but without flattery. There’s sometimes horror in his matter-of-fact telling of Ruspanti’s death, for example, and episodes of black comedy. There’s lots of entertaining detail about the Vatican, and how different it is compared to the rest of Italy, not to mention the city within which it is situated.
If you’ve watched the recent BBC adaptation of ‘Cabal’ you’ll find that although Ruspanti similarly falls to his death, the TV adaptation is much more concerned with Zen’s investigation into the shadowy Cabal, which is a rather more chimaerical organisation in the book, and the murderer of Ruspanti is not the same as in the book.
I enjoyed Cabal greatly: Zen is intelligent and resourceful (and with a helpful friend in Gilberto Nieddu), discovering the killer and his reasons. The mystery is entertaininly twisty, and Dibdin manages to say a lot about contemporary life and the clash with tradition in this crime novel.