End Game

I came across Michael Dibdin surprisingly early. He'd published his first novel in 1978. I purchased it in 1982, a couple years after the Sphere paperback came out. I'd never heard of the man, obviously. I don't think much anybody had. He'd only written the one book and it was by no means a runaway bestseller. The reason I bought the book, the reason I had to buy it was simple. The book was called The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and it was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche.

This was back in the day when Nicholas Meyer had recently published his seminal pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent solution, and everything seemed possible. Meyer had taken a jaded, hackneyed, severely vulgarised character and made him exciting again. After that it was another game entirely. The old rules no longer applied. Anything could happen.

Dibdin went one further. His pastiche was cheeky, oh yes very cheeky indeed, it was clever - and above all it was dangerous. After all - the man had the nerve to make Sherlock Holmes not only face Jack the Ripper but be Jack the Ripper. How macabre! How absolutely refreshing and delightful!

The Last Sherlock Holmes Story quite simply altered my consciousness. I don't think I've ever fully recovered from the book. From that moment on Dibdin was a marked man. Anything he wrote I read.

Took eight years for him to follow up with another book. A Rich Full Death, while not as exciting as the first one, was still a wonderfully grotesque book. It had the poet Robert Browning as the protagonist (and possible murderer), it had a series of macabre murders, it had eerie atmosphere in spades and wit in buckets. It also began the Dibdin's long literary association with Italy.

The next one, Ratking, came out after two years. This time the protagonist was an Italian policeman called Aurelio Zen. It showed us the seamy underbelly of Italy, the Italy we all knew and suspected existed, but to the existence of which nobody would admit. Not as good a book as the two previous one, but still entertaining. The Tryst, the next novel, was short, cryptic, hard to define or even to grasp. It was polished, elegant, obscure. Maybe there was a crime, maybe there wasn't. By the end one didn't much care. Then another Zen, Vendetta. Hang on, he wasn't trying to turn this Zen chap into a serial character was he? He wasn't? I mean, that's where the money is, churning out the same book over and over again in slightly different form, that's what the readers and thus the book publishing industry wanted, but surely Dibdin was above such petty and grubby thinking? Wasn't he?

In 1991 it was time for Dirty Tricks. And what a brilliant novel that was! Dark, funny, ironic, and with the snotty and superior narrator ending up with egg on his face, justly so. Dibdin even had the cheek to let his protagonist meet an oddly familiar Thames Valley Inspector called Moss who liked doing crossword puzzles and listening to Wagner. Oh the dramatic irony of the book. Superb. This was a masterpiece.

Now there seemed to be a pattern. The Zens and the non-Zens seemed to alternate. And the Zens weren't that bad, really, once one got used to them. Cabal was quite amusing, Dead Lagoon and Cosi Fan Tutti positively splendid. In Dead Lagoon we were granted a wonderful view of Venice, Cosi Fan Tutti was a criminal opera buffa (after the fashion of Mozart's opera of the almost identical name) where impostors flourished and identities were mistook and life was just one delicious game. Here was Dibdin at his best, bubbly, sparkling, witty, ironic.

The non-Zen books, however, took a turn for the worse. The Dying of the Light and Thanksgiving were pretty bleak. Dark Spectre was a surprisingly un-Dibdinian thriller about an American religious cult with deplorable suicidal tendencies. Not bad, with many fine insights in fact, but nothing special. In America Dibdin seemed to be on alien turf, not really at home with the language or the ethos. Any number of American thriller writers could have churned out the book. For them it would have been a high point. Not so for Dibdin.

So the Zen books were the thing, then. In them one could find the old clever, bubbly Michael. Right?

Which is of course when it all went down in flames. A Long Finish was pretty boring. Bleak and boring. The next ones, Blood Rain and And Then You Die were positively depressing. It was like Dibdin was fed up with life in general and his own life in particular and the only way to fight it was to pour it all out on paper. It was like he had to take all that was dark and miserable in his soul and chuck it in his books to cope. Unfortunately the depression did not elevate the books. The depression just went in a corner and sagged there, too tired and weary to stand up and give a mighty roar.

Time perchance to kiss Dibdin off?

I never made a conscious decision to stop reading his books, to sever the connection, to finish our fruitful relationship that had lasted a good twenty years. He just faded away. There were other books, there always are other books. That's the curse and the blessing of it. I was half conscious of the fact that new books about Zen were being written and published. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of them in a bookstore. They didn't register particularly.

Then suddenly he died. In 2007, far too early.

Sometime after that I came across the penultimate Zen novel, Back to Bologna. And of course bought it. Reading it I was flabbergasted. This was the old Dibdin! The man was back on form, at the top of his game! The book was funny, clever, ironic, cheeky, bubbly - everything one expected and hoped for. The characters were lively, the plot suitably arabesque, the patter delightfully tongue-in-cheek. It was a marvel. One of the best Zens.

Of course I had to dig up the previous Zen, Medusa. While not as brilliant as Back to Bologna, it was still a splendid read. Things had definitely taken a turn for the better. The slump was over.

Then there was the last one, the posthumously published End Games. The positively last one. No more Dibdin'd to be had neither for love nor money. Kept putting it off for the longest time. Last one. Not to be wasted.

End Games is in many ways the typical Zen novel. Once more Zen has been posted in unfamiliar territory. This time he's a Questore in Calabria, as the previous fellow accidentally shot off his own toes. The Americans are making a movie in the area about The Apocalypse. Except that they aren't. They're really looking for the tomb of Alaric and the treasure buried with him. An American with the film crew is kidnapped for ransom, then savagely executed. Except that he isn't American at all but a scion of the local ruling family. Except that he isn't.

As usual identity is a shifty thing in Dibdin's world. People very often aren't what they're supposed to be, aren't even what they think they are. Dibdin again uses multiple protagonists and tells his story through them, never explaining much, not explaining much at all. The plot consists of "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, of accidental judgements, casual slaughters, of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, and, in this upshot, purposes mistook fallen on th'inventor's heads", to quote old Horatio. The last thing, by the way, quite literally.

Zen manages to solve the convoluted case, after a fashion. Of course he gets bollocksed by his superiors. Well, time to go home anyway. So he gets stuck on a railway platform, temporarily unable to get home, as the trains seldom if ever run on time anymore.

The image of Zen, having accomplished his task, stuck on a platform, in a sort of limbo, unable to get home, seems haunting - like the "hail and farewell" of the author himself.

Hail and farewell, old fellow.

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