Michael Dibdin has always been an accomplished farceur, witness say, Dirty
Tricks (1991), not to mention the strong vein of sardonic humour that has
usually permeated the books featuring Inspector Aurelio Zen. So it was a
surprise, a year or so ago, to find a Telegraph reviewer regretting (pace
2003's Medusa) Dibdin's lack of humour.
That reviewer would be hard put to maintain his thesis after reading
Dibdin's Back to Bolgna. Whilst off to a somewhat clumsy start (two
Bolognese po"\Ãw€ë licemen come across an illegally parked Audi which
proves to contain the body, rendered lifeless by means of a parmesan knife,
of a prominent local tycoon and football club owner), Dibdin is soon getting to
satirical grips with a rich range of characters. First there is celebrity chef
Romano Rinaldi, nicely deflated through the point of view of his director and
personal assistant. Then comes the flamboyant, but recently mugged, Tony
Speranza, the top 'investigatore privato' in Bologna. Next on the chopping
block is semiotics professor Edgardo Ugo (text-messaging a speciality),
recently busy inferring in his regular magazine column that chef as cultural
phenomenon Rinaldi cannot, in fact, cook. Meanwhile a dyspeptic Zen, an
abdominal operation under his belt and suffering from what his disgruntled
partner Gemma Santini regards as a 'full blown case of paranoid
hypochondria', is recalled from sick leave and sent to 'historically Red'
Bologna to observe and advise on the tycoon's murder. Add in a group of
football hooligans and the scene is set.
The central mystery, it has to be said, is dealt with a shade perfunctorily,
even though Zen recovers from his low ebb to resolve the case to our
satisfaction. The plotting, however, is exemplary, bringing together all these
disparate elements in exuberant fashion. Dibdin has great fun with Tony
Speranza, a delirious tribute to Chandler, one of Dibdin's major influences.
And he is clearly familiar with the world of semiotics that make his portrait of
Professor Ugo so telling. Even that banal-sounding title is more than it
appears. Dibdin at his most playful, a joy to read.