Sunday 21 April 2013

Zen and the Art of Murder

Dashiell Hammett once wrote an essay about the most common — and annoying — mistakes in crime fiction.

Number one on the list was for the writer to confuse an automatic pistol with a revolver. Hammett said: "A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves."

He wrote those words in 1930, but it's a lesson that still needs to be learned. Perhaps it seems like a nit-picking detail, but if the author gets something like this wrong  it spoils the whole illusion of reality which is essential to the artifice of fiction: disbelief ceases to be suspended.

Which is why I was so disappointed when Michael Dibdin's marvellous Italian detective Aurelio Zen digs out a pistol obtained by his father when Zen was a little boy. It's a Beretta 9mm revolver.

Beretta are famous for their automatic pistols. They did, eventually, manufacture a couple of revolvers for the American market in the 1980s, but there was never a 9mm model and the period piece described by Dibdin simply doesn't exist.

And that's a real pity, because in other respects Cabal, the novel in question, is a wonderfully diverting piece of crime fiction and Aurelio Zen is a great creation.

Moving through the corrupt world of Italian policing and politics, Zen is himself an amiably semi-corrupt individual. When he is summoned by the Vatican authorities to assist them in covering up a murder, his response is pretty much an enthusiastic 'sure thing'.

This is such a refreshing change from the unbending square jawed crusaders who dominate the literature.

And Dibdin writes very amusingly: "The stairwell was dark, and the timer controlling the lights had been adjusted for the agility of a buck chamois in rut rather than a middle-aged policeman going about his dubious business."

In this case, his dubious business is framing a suspect. But it turns out someone has arrived before him and (very ingeniously) murdered the man...

I also loved Zen's girlfriend Tania, who works in police administration, but in fact spends her days using the office's resources to run her thriving food wholesale business, selling local delicacies from her home town.
What's more, the way Dibdin handles his shadowy, sinister conspiratorial Vatican sect in this novel should be adapted as a model for other writers — notably Dan Brown.

It would make for a lot more fun.

There are eleven Aurelio Zen books. 

The BBC did some adaptations for television, based on the first three: Ratking, Vendetta and Cabal. I missed these and the series was cancelled after one season.

I now regret both these facts.

(Note: the Dashiell Hammett essay I quoted was published in the Saturday Review of Literature on 7 June  and 3 July 1930. Astonishingly, it isn't available on the internet, though there's some excerpts here. Until some kind soul types it out and posts it, you'll have to find it in a physical book, like Richard Layman's excellent Hammett biography Shadow Man, on pages 122-125. It's well worth a read. And the rare hybrid automatic-revolver Hammett mentions is described here.)

(Image credits: the book covers for Cabal, Ratking and Vendetta are all from the Faber website. Nice designs, folks. The DVD cover is from The stylish Shadow Man cover is from Amazon. Buy a copy. They're going cheap.) 


  1. The series the BBC did is well worth catching Andrew. 3 90 minutes of sheer summery joy played beautifully by the leads with a touch of an ITC flavour about it all. I was extremely irritated when the beeb in their stupidity cancelled it.

    I tried to read some of the novels but didn't have the same enthusiasm alas as you have. I found Dibdin's prose style quite tough and too full.

  2. The elementary mistake that you have pointed out here is something
    that is all too common in crime dramas and it irritates me too.
    It show a lack of attention to detail.

  3. The last sentence above should be: " It shows..."
    I have just been reading 'The Amis Collection', a Penguin book which contains various essays and reviews written by Kingsley Amis. In the book is a review of Dibdin's novel "The Last Sherlock Holmes Story". Amis is somewhat scathing about it. He is also somewhat critical of Dashiell Hammett's ' The Glass Key'.
    The review was written for The New Statesman magazine in 1978.
    If you haven't already read this collection then I suggest that you do
    as it is entertaining.
    Best regards.