Philip Tafdrup

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Zen – another type of British detective



Rufus Sewell and Caterina MurinoBBC is known for its classy crime fighters – from the Agatha Christies to Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders: there is always time for a cup of tea and a wise word or two from the heroes of the series.

Zen is a British television series produced by Left Bank Pictures for the BBC. Yet another detective, yet more cottages, clotted cream and endless cups of tea? Yet another detective, certainly, but no more cottages and not a lot of tea. Zen breaks the mold of the classic British crime time series by being more stylish, more suave, more sumptuous and – gasp! – set in Italy! However, everyone speaks English in the series; you needn’t worry about reading the subtitles all the time and missing a glimpse of the gorgeous Italian landscape.

The main stars of the series are the well-known British character actor Rufus Sewell and the lovely Caterina Murino, an Italian actress based in London. Sewell usually looks good in costume drama – now he looks stunning in a contemporary Italian suit. The series is based on the Aurelio Zen detective novels by Michael Dibdin. Unfortunately he didn’t live to see the series, and his last book about Zen, with the fitting title End Games, was published posthumously in 2007.

The series comprises three 90-minute films and they were broadcast in the United Kingdom on Sunday evenings from 2 January 2011 on BBC One. Now all the episodes are also available in Sweden in a BBC/Scanbox DVD-box. The three films were based on the books Vendetta,Cabal and Ratking.

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Ratking is actually Dibdin's first novel (not the third) and it is probably considered Dibdin's very best Zen novel – though they are all gripping – and the book won the Gold Dagger award of 1988.

The Zen detective novels are said to provide a penetrating insight into the less visible aspects of Italian society over the last twenty years. The Zen series gradually gets darker and the character of Zen himself is anti-heroic, which adds to much of the humor of the novels.

vendettaThe BBC TV-series starts off with a bang: with Vendetta, Dibdin’s second novel. Vendetta is one Italian word even non-Italian-speakers know - and it sounds much more exotic than the English “blood feud” or “quarrel that goes on for ages”. Of course the word itself originates from Latinvindicta - which has become the English word vengeance…

In Vendetta detective Zen is sent to a remote village to once again re-investigate a murder. This is not “cold case” but “hot stuff”because the case may spark a political scandal. Zen is under pressure both from the politicians and the Chief of Police. However, Zen is not one of these diligent officers, he is rather an anti-hero and he would rather be spending time with Tania (Caterina Murino), the Chief's assistant, whom everyone in the office seems to be in love with. As a parallel thread in the crime tapestry a gangster is hunting Zen, seeking revenge. There is more than one vengeance hunt going on and Zen is simultaneously the hunter and the prey. At the core you have a classic "locked door" mystery – something which appeals to all fans of well-written (and well-filmed) crime fiction.

Cabal deals with the death of a famous aristocrat, Umberto Ruspanti. This leads Detective Zen into the world of the Cabal—an organization more powerful and secret than the Mafia. The Ministry is pressuring for a quick verdict of suicide. Zen does not agree. All the while the maybe-romance with Tania continues – and gets hotter.

In Ratking detective Zen has very little time and immense pressure to recover the kidnapped Ruggerio Miletti alive. He is a wealthy industrialist with political ties. To complicate matters there is involvement from Miletti’s manipulative family and also beautiful grieving widow who may or may not provide a love interest for Zen. Speaking of love interest: Tania's husband does everything he can to get rid of Zen.

Unfortunately the series was canceled by BBC One in February 2011, with the motivation that there are already enough male crime-fighters on TV. However – is there enough Italy on TV? Not really.

Left Bank, the show's producer, has been in discussions with other broadcasters about continuing the series elsewhere; maybe we haven’t seen the last of Rufus Zewell as Aurelio Zen yet?

In the meantime –enjoy the books by Michael Dibdin!

Belinda Graham

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