Fine Print: Michael Dibdin

Anthony Mason and Michael Dibdin in Tuscany Nov 26, 2000
It's a blustery day on the Tuscan coast. A cold wind is whipping in from the Mediterranean. It's the back end of a storm that has blown through the Italian Riviera. Under this ominous sky, an Englishman lurks, a tall stranger in a straw Panama hat, looking for the scene of a crime.

It's Michael Dibdin, an English author who writes about an Italian detective named Inspector Aurelio Zen. Correspondent Anthony Mason reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

Italy is the setting for Vendetta, and Dead Lagoon, and Blood Rain, and the rest of the Dibdin's series of highly acclaimed Aurelio Zen mysteries.

So why is Italy such a good place to set a crime novel?

"There's a hint of drama, of course, but also with a huge amount being hidden, there's a sense of drama," Dibdin replies. "There's also a sense of immense mystery. I mean, what more do you need, you know, for a mystery novel?"

Aurelio Zen, says his creator, "is not a white knight who thinks he can ride in and make everything different. Because I think, on the whole, Italians do not have those kind of illusions."

The author himself is somewhat inscrutable. For a crime writer, Dibdin is hardly your usual suspect. He is an English writer, raised in Northern Ireland, who lives in Seattle and writes about an Italian detective.

So what does he call himself? After some verbal jousting, Dibdin comes up with a description: "I'm a resident alien. That's exactly what I am. I'm a resident alien, and I feel alien everywhere."

The son of an itinerant physics teacher, Dibdin and his family moved every year for the first seven years of his life. "They always felt that the grass would be greener on the other side of the hill, and you just kept on moving," he explains.

Early on, Dibdin started writing. But his precise motives are a mystery.

"I have no idea, no idea. I really don't," he says. "But I scribbled from a very early age. I'm afraid, you know, there was even a moment when I wrote, well, poetry!"

Why did he choose to write crime novels?

"Well, I didn't really choose to write crime novels," says Dibdin. "Crime novels have chosen me."

It was all an accident, really. Dibdin was living in Italy, teaching English at an Italian university, when he was abruptly fired in a school power struggle -- "which left me feeling, I have to say, pretty bitter," he says. So he started sketching out a crime novel set in Italy, with the criminals drawn from his former colleagues.

"I did it partly, I have to say, as sort of a little act of revenge, a private act of revenge," notes the author.

That novel, Ratking,introduced Italian police inspector Aurelio Zen. Much to Dibdin's surprise, it won the British crime writer's Gold Dagger for best mystery. "And people started saying, 'Well, when's your next Italian book?'" he recalls.

Dibdin himself disovered he was growing intrigued with the inspector he had created quite by accident.

"When Zen started out, it was just after, you know, the Aldo Moro affair, where he was kidnapped by the Red Brigades and then murdered, as many people believe, with the collusion of the government," explains Dibdin.

After the kidnapping and murder of their former prime minister in 1978, Italians learned to hold authority under suspicion. Dibdin finds it interesting to work with a character who is a decent policeman who must work against public perception that, as a policeman, he must be rotten.

It was Dibdin's heart that ultimately took him to America. After he fell for another mystery writer, Katherine Beck (K.K. Beck to her readers), he moved in alongside her in Seattle.

Says Beck, "I had a little house in Seattle. And he bought the twin house next door. And that's the writing house."

She writes upstairs. He writes downstairs.

"It's a little odd," admits Beck, "but it works quite nicely."

And they claim the egos never clash.

"Somehow," says Dibdin, "we seem to be able to have the ability to look at each other's work with a cool but friendly eye."

Beck adds, "he writes about very dark things, so that requires a certain descent into moodiness."

Does she have to go along?

"Well, you know, you feel you should go along out of kindness," replies Beck. "But there's only so far you're willing to go."

Dibdin writes a book a year, alternating with non-Zen novels. But he always comes back to his Venetian policeman.

This past summer, Dibdin began scouting the scene of Zen's next adventure along the Tuscan coast, where the sands are carefully segregated into private clubs and regimental rows of beach chairs seem to be marching toward the sea.

The longer you are with the place, says Dibdin, the closer you get to the sea. "It's a bit like subscribing to the opera, you know," he explains. "You start off...with the bad seats. And then you move forward to the good stuff."

In the book, Zen will be recovering from an attack by the Mafia in Sicily.

"It's the perfect place to hide're hiding in plain view, which is always the good thing to do," explains the author.

In the end, Dibdin says, his novels are more about the people than the place. But they are possessed of an Italian attitude. The skepticism that says, like the leaves on the olive tree, things are not all that they seem. Above, the leaves are a rich glossy color. "If you're looking at them from underneath, there's a rough, sort of dirty green side," he explains.

Ever the Englishman abroad, Michael Dibdin has condemned himself to the role of itinerant alien. But after all these years, the author has made himself at home with his Italian inspector.

Does Dibdin see an end for Zen at some point?

"Well, I suppose in the same sense that I see an end for m," the author replies. "I mean, we don't last forever, you know. We'll have to wait and see."