It’s almost always disorienting to see a crime novel or a series of books translated for television or film. Those visual entertainment media generally narrow the original author’s storytelling scope. They may alter the twists and prune the casts of characters, or revise relationships between players in order to emphasize different plot dynamics. In the end, what makes it past the cutting-room floor could be an earnest but still imperfect effort (such as Wallander, the British adaptation of Henning Mankell’s police procedurals) or an embarrassing mishmash that confuses even people who’ve read the source material (e.g., director Brian de Palma’s movie version of James Ellroy’s 1987 novel, The Black Dahlia).
Read the last Rap Sheet about discovering crime fiction.
So it was with more than a modicum of trepidation that I approached Zen, the three-episode UK series based on Michael Dibdin’s Italian detective novels that’s set to run under PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! umbrella, beginning this Sunday, July 17.
Dibdin, who died in 2007 at age 60, was British-born but had lived in the United States since the early 1990s. His debut novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, in which the Great Detective tries to solve London’s notorious Jack the Ripper slayings, was published in 1978. He subsequently relocated to Italy, where during a five-year stay he taught English at a university in the medieval city of Perugia. Ratking, Dibdin’s first book featuring police commissioner Aurelio Zen, reached stores in 1989 and went on to win the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger Award.
Zen wasn’t conceived as a continuing protagonist. As Dibdin told January Magazine in 1999, “I invented the Zen character for [Ratking], but I wasn’t really particularly interested in him, so there wasn’t really a lot about him in that book. He’s really just a facilitator who comes in and makes it possible for other things to happen.”
However, readers took a liking to Zen. An eternal outsider (reared in Venice but attached to the Ministry of the Interior in Rome), he wasn’t terribly ambitious and was often melancholy, cynical, capable of making critical mistakes and weary of the politically charged nightmare that is the Italian bureaucracy. But Zen was also an honorable, passionate figure. Spurred on by his sales figures, Dibdin eventually produced 11 Zen novels, set all over Italy, concluding with End Games (2007).
For the Left Bank Pictures-produced TV series Zen, writer Simon Burke has retailored and in fact reordered Dibdin’s first three detective yarns, trimming and rearranging some of their complexities, but maintaining their themes and capturing the wry humor that always underlay this novelist’s work. In Sunday’s premiere episode, “Vendetta” (based on the second Zen novel of that same name), the detective reinvestigates a homicide in a remote village that may provoke political scandal. “Cabal” (July 24) finds him in league with a beautifully brazen courtesan, probing an alleged suicide that may bring down a right-wing group. And “Ratking” (July 31)—certainly the most satisfying of these shows, with a juicy undercurrent of revenge—has Zen struggling to win the release of a wealthy kidnapping victim, whose family offers him more challenges than support.
Shot on location around Rome, this program is lush with architecture and landscapes evoking the splendors of ancient history. Aurelio Zen, played with low-key authority by English actor Rufus Sewell (Eleventh Hour, Middlemarch), remains the too-scrupulous-for-his-own-good cop who lives with his mother, resents the cheating wife from whom he’s separated and tries to exact justice in a system epidemic with corruption. He’s joined here—in more ways than one—by the younger Tania Moretti (aka Tania Biacis in Dibdin’s books), his chief’s fetching and unhappily married assistant, portrayed by Italian former Bond girl Caterina Murino. Although Zen’s cast is international, and everybody speaks English with a different accent, it’s quite easy to overlook that illogic as the drama unfolds, its marvels, mysteries and treacheries tumbling over one another in a seductive rush.
While it would be easy to resent screenwriter Burke for the manifold liberties he’s taken with Dibdin’s stories, it’s probably wiser to enjoy Zen on its own terms and see it as an invitation to read or reread the original novels later. One could find far less delightful ways to spend some free hours.