In this masterpiece of psychological suspense, Italian Police Commissioner Aurelio Zen is dispatched to investigate the kidnapping of Ruggiero Miletti, a powerful Perugian industrialist. But nobody much wants Zen to succeed: not the local authorities, who view him as an interloper, and certainly not Miletti's children, who seem content to let the head of the family languish in the hands of his abductors -- if he's still alive. Was Miletti truly the victim of professionals? Or might his kidnapper be someone closer to home: his preening son Daniele, with his million-lire wardrobe and his profitable drug business? His daughter, Cinzia, whose vapid beauty conceals a devastating secret? The perverse Silvio, or the eldest son Pietro, the unscrupulous fixer who manipulates the plots of others for his own ends? As Zen tries to unravel this rat's nest of family intrigue and official complicity, Michael Dibdin gives us one of his most accomplished thrillers, a chilling masterpiece of police procedure and psychological suspense.
If I hadn't known when I started reading that this is the first book in a series, I wouldn't have detected it from the quality of the writing. This is a strong series debut. It has a wonderful sense of place. I've been lucky enough to travel to Italy a couple of times, and Dibdin's descriptions brought back memories of things I had noticed during my travels that I thought I had forgotten. Although the book was first published more than 20 years ago, it doesn't feel too dated, except for a noticeable absence of cell phones.
Zen has to do more than just identify the guilty; he has to outwit those with wealth and political power who try to use their influence to direct the investigation to their own ends. It might have cross-over appeal for readers who enjoy political thrillers.
Kidnapping seems to be rather commonplace in Italy and often has political connections. The author appears to be very knowledgeable on all aspects of Italy, including the geopolitical divisions of the country. The victim here is from one of Italy’s most powerful families and it isn’t long before Zen realizes that not everyone in this secretive family wishes their father to be returned.
Ratking has a definite noir feeling about it. The tone is dark and morose with corruption on all sides. Zen appears to stumble along, working as an outsider, but slowly it becomes obvious that his apparent indifference and aloofness is a shield that he uses to hide the clear moral code that he follows. Even though it seems that everyone else in the story is working toward his downfall, he stubbornly carries on. This book totally immerses it’s reader in Italy with the food, the scenery and traditions vividly outlined. With such an interesting setting along with it’s strong stoyline and interesting cast of characters, this will be a series that I will be continuing on with.
Naturally, Zen's unrequested presence is resented by the local police force. cooperation is nearly non-existent until the Assitant Prosecutor, a Communist with his own agenda, decides to make an ally of Zen.
Zen proceeds with the investigation despite roadblocks thrown in his way by Perugian officiladom and the family itself. He finally solves the case, thanks to the assumptions generated by the endemic corruption. The ending is excellent.
The plot is excellent and the book is very well written. Like Donna Leon's books about Venice, an integral part of the story is the power-brokering and corruption of official Italy. it adds presence to the story.
Characters are very well drawn and except for Zen, pretty much unlikeable. There is a love interest in Zen's life that plays no major role in the story--it almost seems like an afterthought.
The emotional sense of the entire book is one of melancholy, even a sort of despair. Hanging over it all is the uneasy feeling of something sinister--the writing is permeated with it. This is not a light-hearted or even affectionate look at Italy but a very dark one.
An excellent read and a book that leaves the reader wanting to read more of Zen. Highly recommended.
Dibdin develops a complex crime scenario. Is the entire kidnapping a fake, a put up job? Is the industrialist's messed up family behind the kidnapping? Why does the family not cooperate with the police? Can Zen arrange for his safe return? If not, will Zen end up back in his duties in Rome?
Zen likens the family to a 'ratking' and whether you believe that ratkings actually exist in nature, these folks are the real thing (look it up - I won't spoil the surprise).
Dibdin, however, does not stop with a mere police mystery, but develops a multi-layered story. He presents a largely dysfunctional Italian society where few people work much or very hard, certainly no more than absolutely necessary. Every individual is subject to power exercised often arbitrarily by nearly everyone else - and that's the trade-off; everyone gets at least a little power to lord over anyone wandering into their bailiwick. And Dibdin also begins to develop Zen as a complex character whose American expat girlfriend resents his sudden involvement in real police work, who lives with his mother, and who mourns the loss of a father he never really knew. In Dibdin's obit (he died in 2007), the Guardian observed that the Ratking's plot existed mainly for the presentation of "mordant dialogue and world-weary observation".
The story did drag at times; perhaps it suffered a bit from setting up Zen's back story, which took the reader away from the main story. One assumes the reader's patience will be rewarded in the remaining ten Zen novels. I look forward to reading Vendetta (Zen), the second book in the series. Highly recommended.
I haven't read any of the other Zen books, although several years ago I did watch the videos of the books, including one that is based on this book. I enjoyed those videos. This book was a good read. Its well written and humorous.
It must be almost thirty years ago that I first read Michael Dibdin’s novels featuring the cynical and jaded detective Aurelio Zen, who seemed to be despatched from Rome to a different part of Italy in each book. I suppose that I was in part won over by the unusual setting being (both then and now) woefully ignorant of Italy, and at the time Zen himself seemed an exotic character.
Coming back to it now, I found Ratking (the novel in which Zen made his debut) very irritating. The characters are all totally implausible (and, without exception, utterly objectionable) and the plot is wafer thin.
My principal response now ids to think how hardy and committed my younger self must have been to persevere not only through this rather weak and disappointing book, but also through several of its successors. But now I am left wondering whether it was a case of having more literary staying power, or simply less critical judgement then than now.
'Bartocci shook his head. " ... A ratking is something that happens when too many rats have to live in too small a space under too much pressure. Their tails become entwined and the more they strain and stretch to free themselves the tighter grows the knot binding them, until at last it becomes a solid mass of embedded tissue. And the creature thus formed, as many as thirty rats tied together by the tail, is called a ratking. You wouldn't expect such a living contradiction to survive, would you? That's the most amazing thing of all. Most of the ratkings that are discovered, in the plaster of old houses or beneath the floorboards of a barn, are heathy and flourishing. ..."'
Ewww! But this definition colored my reading of what followed in Zen's investigation into the kidnapping of Ruggerio Miletti. I also love how Dibdin brought this definition back into play when discussing how Zen planned to crack the case at the end.