This is the text of a Michael Dibdin appreciation I gave on BBC Radio 4's LAST WORD programme today
Michael Dibdin was not just a crime writer; he was a man of wordly appetites, a man who loved women, wine, food, literature and travel. We kept on meeting on and off every couple of years over two decades and on every occasion, it seemed his waistband had expanded just that little bit more than mine as we both steadily acquired what is euphemistically called ‘extra luggage’ and matching thatches of grey hair. We also had other things in common, apart from the fact that we often shared reviewing duties at The Guardian and worked in the galleys of crime and mystery fiction: we both lived several years in Italy, and he now resided in Seattle, a wondrous American city I have visited often and know well and even once thought it would be nice to move to.
Michael’s childhood was peripatetic as his family moved from place to place until he finally settled in Ireland. He later went on to university at Sussex and then Edmonton in Canada. He’d always dreamed of writing full-time rather than the teaching jobs he was destined to embrace and it was back in London, with his first wife, that he came upon the idea of marrying the mystery of Jack the Ripper with Sherlock Holmes and wrote THE LAST SHERLOCK HOLMES STORY which was quickly published, unlike the three mainstream novels he’d already penned to no effect. But he had never intended to become a Sherlock pastiche author and after a sojourn of 4 years in Italy he created Aurelio Zen, a Venice-born Italian policeman, always at odds with local corruption, politics, crime and underhand dealings. Zen made his first appearance in RATKING in 1988 in which he arrives as an outsider in the city of Perugia. In later novels, Zen visited an assortment of Italian cities and regions, including an almost fatal entanglement with the mafia whilst in Sicily. The success of the first book, not initially intended as a series, confirmed by an award from the Crime Writers’ Association, allowed Dibdin to become a full-time writer and for the rest of his life he would alternate Zen novels with stand alone crime novels which embraced the whole spectrum of the genre. One of my own favourites is THANKSGIVING, a thriller set in America, full of sex and obsession, which added an unsettling existential anguish to Michael’s books which had not manifested itself before, and which I sensed was also of a strong personal nature, betraying his own wanderlust. Other non-Zen novels tackled adultery and treachery in middle-class England, the tropes of the country house murder sub-genre and many aspects of the mystery novel, a literary area Dibdin became a perceptive expert of - he edited several critical collections of classic stories, putting the genre in its historical perspective, and his views in newspapers and magazines were always probing and elegant.
But he will best be remembered for the clever if often hapless Aurelio Zen of which he once said : “He’s a friend I like, but I don’t feel I know terribly well. Which is an advantage, you know. He’s capable of surprising me. In fact, in each new book I write, he usually does surprise me at some point. And I think that’s an important thing to do when you’re writing a series, because otherwise it can just get too easy”.
Michael met his third wife, the US crime writer K.K. Beck at one the crime calendar’s most colourful (and booze-laden) events: the Semana Negra in Gijon in Spain, and followed her back to Seattle in 1997, where they lived in adjoining houses, with children from both their previous marriages in regular attendance. It looked as if his travels had come to an end and he had found a sort of peace. I still remember a pleasant party at Kathrine’s house some years back, with Michael as a jovial host, and friend and neighbour Jonathan Raban mingling democratically with us mere crime writers in the crowded kitchen. Michael, with his shirt buttons straining at tummy level, elegant grey hair curling was the very soul of the party.
The final Zen novel, ironically titled END GAMES appears in July.