Obituary: Michael Dibdin

Crime writer and novelist who created the maverick Venetian detective Aurelio Zen

The novelist Michael Dibdin, who has died aged 60 after a short illness, created the Venice-born detective Aurelio Zen, whose tasks took him to vigorously differentiated parts of Italy that rarely afforded him any peace of mind. Zen's peripatetic life and tangled emotional encounters owed much to Dibdin's own spirit. As with detection, the writer may have always had a goal in view, writing, but things happened along the way.

Born in postwar Wolverhampton, he was the son of a physicist-cum-folklore expert, whose countrywide work was supported by a wife able to find nursing posts at each port of call. By the age of seven, Dibdin had lost track of all these, and insisted that their halt in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, be permanent and his father exchanged folklore for the rigour of a physics lectureship.

An Irish way with storytelling was to be a distinct influence upon Dibdin at the Quaker Friends' school in Lisburn, where an English teacher, the poet James Simmons, enthused his pupils with the spirit of the times, with modern jazz as much a part of their talk as James Joyce. And then there was Eileen Coleman, mother of one of his schoolfriends, one-time lover of the model for a character in Ulysses and equally encouraging. Dibdin read voraciously - including John Buchan (and his archetypal The Thirty-Nine Steps), Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett - and began to write himself. By the early 1960s he had taken up Len Deighton's new thrillers.

In 1967 he graduated with an English degree from Sussex University and then studied at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and qualified as a teacher. But, holed up in Alberta, a decorating business was as ill-fated as his early attempts at novels.

Having married Benita Mitbrodt, he returned to London in the early 1970s and settled in Chiswick. There his fiction was transformed by the arrival of a friend with an enthusiasm for Jack the Ripper, a subject which Dibdin mugged up so that he could guide him to grisly spots. At the same time his wife was reading Sherlock Holmes; his thought to bring them together was so strong that plotlines woke him in the night. A bookseller thought it publishable, and it appeared as The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978).

Although adroit, the pastiche was a false start. Uncomfortable with contemporary England and divorced in 1979, he moved to Italy after language work with Vietnamese boat people revived the teaching impulse. While working in Perugia, he met his second wife, Sybil Sheringham, and wrote another novel, A Rich Full Death (1986), set in Victorian Florence, complete with the Brownings.

Italy had, however, given him an angle upon the world which, on their return to Oxford, brought Ratking (1988) - and the appearance of Zen, who is among those ignominiously robbed by gun-toting robbers on a train, which later prompts a passenger to sneer: "I never in my worst moments expected to witness such a blatant example of craven dereliction of duty as I have seen today!" The tone of Zen's existence is set by a visit soon after to his mother: "The heavy front door closed behind him with a bang, shutting him in, shutting out the world. As he moved the switch the single bulb which lit the entrance hall ended its long, wan existence in an extravagant flash, leaving him in the dark, just back from school."

That is the true Dibdin tone, with Zen - a man never free of his past - despatched to a kidnapping case in Perugia. As in Dibdin's admired Chandler, the plots defy ready summary, and exist as much as anything else for mordant dialogue and world-weary observation; all of this is balanced by such devices as documents disguised in bow-tied cake wrappings.

Almost by accident, Dibdin had a series detective whom he did not wish to dwindle into a stock figure - and he was grateful that publishers let him follow his own inclinations. Not only did he have Zen deployed in a different part of Italy with each novel, but these invariably alternated with such English-set novels as The Tryst (1989) and Dirty Tricks (1991), while The Dying of the Light (1993) is an unexpected take upon an old-fashioned country-house murder.

As recently as 2000, with the splendid, well-nigh existential Thanksgiving, Dibdin was turning a twist on his own life. This features an English journalist who, after his wife's sudden death, visits, gun in pocket, her first husband who has holed up in the Nevada desert with some curious habits and hobbies. Not that Dibdin did any such thing; such speculation grew, fantastically, from his third marriage, to crime writer Kathrine Beck whom he met at a 1993 conference in Spain. On their marriage in 1995, he bought a house next to hers in Seattle, where writing continued as regularly as ever. Naturally enough, America also featured to murderous account in Dark Spectre (1995), while Zen continued to be so haunted by those for whom life is cheap that he appeared to have come full, final circle in Blood Rain (1999). This lands him in the toughest patch of all, Sicily, where this time a train conceals a decomposing body. Many pages later, "the bridge exploded... It had been an impressive blast, even though they'd had very little time. The quantity of explosives used was only a fraction of the amount which the Mafia had used to kill the judges Paolo Falcon and Giovanni Borsellino, but this too would be perceived as a message. After all, Zen was just a policeman".

One, evidently, of bankable fortitude. With a beachside recovery from that ordeal, he resurfaced in And Then You Die (2002), when another, prompt attempt on his life is averted because he had switched loungers. Similarly, his changing seats on an America-bound plane lumbers another passenger with death, and the consequent diversion brings Zen a taste of Iceland. Subsequent excursions include End Games: out this July, it looks set to have Zen follow his creator - a considerably more jovial man - to the grave.

He is survived by his wife and a daughter from each of his previous two marriages.

· Michael John Dibdin, novelist, born March 21 1947; died March 30 2007


Christopher Hawtree

The GuardianTramp

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