Cabal by Michael Dibdin

Faber and Faber 1992 277 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Aurelio Zen is back. This time the Inspector for Italy's elite Criminalpol squad finds himself in Rome, caught between his superiors and the Vatican government during the day, and his mom and his girlfriend at night. Zen is not a happy cop.

It seems that Prince Ludovico Ruspanti, "an inveterate gambler and playboy but also a pillar of the establishment and a prominent member of the Knights of Malta" has taken a fatal dive from the upper reaches of the chapel at St. Peter's during Mass. The Vatican secret police force, the Vigilanza, wants a quick judgment of suicide from the Roman authorities, which Zen is happy to give them. Until Zen discovers that Ruspanti may have been using the Vatican bank for dubious financial purposes at the behest of the secret society of the Knights, "the richest and most powerful medieval order of chivalry, ... still recognized as an independent state by over forty nations, including Italy." As he gathers evidence to prove Ruspanti's death a murder, more bodies begin to appear, and Zen suspects the Papal authorities themselves may be part of another cabal entirely, one out to kill Zen himself, despite their attempts to reassure him.

As his Vatican contact says, "this little city state, whose sole object is to facilitate the spiritual work of the Holy Father, is the object of an inordinate degree of morbid fascination on the part of the general public. People seem to believe that we are a medieval relic which has survived intact into the twentieth century, rife with secrecy, skulduggery and intrigue, at once sinister and colorful. Since such a Vatican doesn't in fact exist, they invent it."

British writer Michael Dibdin has taken us along on two of Zen's exciting previous cases in Ratking and Vendetta. Zen, "a gaunt, imposing figure with sharp angular features and a gaze that hovered ambiguously between menace and mockery," has more to deal with than killers bent on eliminating him. There's the dire threat of the woman he lives with, his mom, protectress of Family Values. "Zen had been separated from his wife Luisella for over a decade, but in the eyes of the Church and Zen's mother they were still married." Consequently, Zen is finding it inordinately difficult to carry on an affair with his latest girlfriend, Tania, and is forever inventing excuses for leaving the house, but his mother seldom believes them. Then there's the note Zen finds in the apartment he's renting for Tania which suggests that Zen is not the only man sharing her bed. Is it her former husband, or perhaps Lorenzo Moscati, head of the Criminalpol division, who, Zen believes, is keeping a secret electronic file on him? To Zen, the Cabal may be life itself.

The plot is not the only attraction of Cabal: Dibdin manages to maintain the popular appeal of crime fiction while presenting it in captivating prose. Here, Zen leaves a building: "The fog was thicker and denser by now, an intangible barrier which emerged vampire-like every night, draining substance and solidity from the surrounding to feed its own illusory reality. Zen vanished into it like a figment of the city's imagination." Mentholated cigarettes are "like smoking paper tissues smeared with toothpaste." And windows "were covered in lace curtaining which strained the sunlight like honey through muslin."

In Cabal, Dibdin has crafted a complex, absorbing and intelligent story that seems to have been told from the inside, all the more impressive given he is British, not Italian. If you haven't met Inspector Zen, seek him out and introduce yourself.