Friday, February 3, 2012

END GAMES by Michael Dibdin and DRESSED FOR DEATH by Donna Leon

I usually have at least two books going at once: one on my iPod to listen to while working in the kitchen, and one to carry around the house and carelessly leave wherever I happen to have been last. Last week I confused myself. My audiobook was Donna Leon's third Guido Brunetti detective story, Dressed for Death, while my tote-around-the-house book was Michael Dibdin's eleventh Aurelio Zen detective story, End Games.

Guido Brunetti is a Venetian police commissario who, in Dressed for Death, has been asked to supervise a case in nearby Mestre because two of Mestre's ranking police officers are on vacation, one is on maternity leave, and one is laid up with a broken leg. It is August, and it is unbearably hot.

Aurelio Zen is a Venetian-born police detective (now living in Lucca) who, in End Games, has been asked to supervise a case in distant Calabria because the local police chief has shot himself in the foot. It is August, and it is unbearably hot.

For some reason I kept conflating the two stories.

Both books are tightly plotted with just the right amount of local color. Both are by English-speaking authors who know Italy well. Leon was born in Montclair, New Jersey, and has lived in Venice, Italy, for the last 30 years. Dibdin, who died in 2007, was born in Wolverhampton, England, and spent four years teaching English in Perugia, Italy.

Some of Dibdin's books are translated into Italian. Leon's books are translated into many languages, but Italian is not one of them. "They’re not translated into Italian and they won’t be," she told an interviewer. "That’s my choice because I do not want to live where I am famous." In some Italian circles, she might be infamous: her books, like Dibdin's, portray not only the Italy of opera, fine art, and la bella cucina, but also the Italy where organized crime's tentacles reach deep into government, church, and business.

So, Italophiles, which will it be--the Leon novel about transvestites, male prostitution, corruption, and hypocrisy; or the Dibdin novel about kidnappers, treasure hunters, a computer gamer, a movie producer, and a longstanding feud?

You won't go wrong with either author, though if you're like me, it may take a few tries before you become a fan. I read Dibdin's fifth and seventh Aurelio Zen books back in 1999 and 2000 before picking up book eleven last month; I read Leon's first Guido Brunetti book more than two years before checking out books two and three. Now I'm eager to read more, or perhaps to listen or watch: three of the Zen books have been adapted by PBS Masterpiece Mystery.

Based on my small sample--three books out of eleven, three out of twenty--I'm guessing that if you like getting to know your detective's home, family, friends, and associates, you'll prefer Leon, while if you prefer fast-paced action, technology, and complex plotting, you'll go for Dibdin. Dressed for Death rocked along slowly like a gondola in a Venetian canal as Brunetti gathered information and came up with strategies. End Games kept me reading long past my bedtime--once I figured out who all the characters were and how they fit into the story, which was challenging at first.

But hey, you don't have to choose. Read both. Just not at the same time.

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