Così Fan Tutti
Author: Michael Dibdin
Publisher: Vintage Books / Black Lizard/
Set in Napoli (Naples) in Italy, this novel is one of a series, but it isn't the first in this series, and I haven't read any of the others, so that may or may not affect my take on this. I've actually been to Napoli, but the visit was so brief and it was so long ago that I barely recall it. It seems that everyone who writes detective series has to have a character they groom for their stories, and I confess that sometimes seems weird to me, but it’s undoubtedly a very commercial approach. In Dibdin's case, the character is Aurelio Zen. Dibdin was English by birth and spent only five years in Italy, so I'm not sure what his motivation was for setting his series there. Maybe it was nostalgia or a desire to set his series apart from those of other writers. Maybe it was something else.
Così Fan Tutte is the name of the opera by Mozart; it's taken to mean: 'women are like that'. So there's a slight difference between it and the title of the novel. Maybe the changed title means men are like that (or perhaps everyone is like that)?! The book is supposedly published by Black Lizard but the lizard on the cover is pink! Hmm!
I don’t really get novels which are set in another country and the language is English using English idiom, but (as in this particular case) unmarried women are referred to as Signora, rather than Miss or Ms. If it were in French, it would be Mademoiselle, if German, it would be Fraulein. From a writing perspective I have to ask why? What does this achieve? To me it’s an annoyance, reminding me that I'm reading a novel. It’s the same problem when the writer mentions some local meal they ate. Unless I happen to know what it is (which was only about fifty percent of the time so far in this novel!), what does it convey to me to say they ate sucho-and-sucho? Nothing. Doe sit have meaning beyond the mere word, though - to evoke a feeling or a reaction? maybe. My reaction is Oy Veh!
I didn’t like the opening, which set up the requisite murder (more accurately, the first of the requisite murders). I do like that the contents shows chapter headings in English, but the headings for each actual chapter are in Italian. I don’t know why, but it’s a quirk which somehow appealed to me - and this almost completely contradicts what I said above, doesn't it?! But not quite - at least we get a translation! In that way you can learn a little Italian if you wish. The chapter headings are actually from the original libretto for Mozart's opus. After the opening chapter, the story was much more readable, and I easily got into it, enjoying the sly humor and everyone's attempts to work the Italian system to their own advantage. Unfortunately, this didn't last too long!
Aurelio Zen starts out having apparently been demoted (but he proactively set it up so that he could chose the venue of his 'punishment'). This evidently is a result of something he did (or failed to do!) in a previous volume of this series. Frankly I was suspicious that this itself is a set-up and he's actually investigating something - perhaps corruption - under the guise of the demotion, but if my guess is right (which it usually isn’t!) then he sure doesn't seem to be doing much in that regard. Perhaps he really was demoted.
His first act is talking to two young women, doing a favor for their mother - a very rich woman, the widow of a mobster, whose two daughters are dating street thugs. Their mother wants the relationships terminated. She and Zen plan to achieve this end by sending the girls to London for two weeks under the guise of studying in England. Zen than hires two prostitutes to lead the thugs astray to show the daughters how fickle they are. In return for this, Zen gets to rent, at advantageous terms, a nice apartment which is owned by the woman. Zen does notice that these guys have absolutely no police file whatsoever, which only makes him more suspicious of them.
There's also the case of a stabbing in the dock area (a locale for which Zen is responsible). It took place after a fracas (an appropriate word since it comes from an Italian root!) between some American sailors and some Greek sailors. The guy they have in custody isn't talking. He claims he understands only English, but he says that in the thick local accent! When Zen sings snatches of some English pop songs he knows, the guy doesn’t even remotely react like he understands it.
Okay, so here's what happened with this, seriously. I was going along and I just was not getting into it. I thought I was going to finish it and give it a reserved worthy, but today I actually had a choice to read this or to listen to Charlaine Harris, and despite the fact that I am starting to despise book 4 of that sucky series, I still found it easier to listen to that than to plow through more of this one, so honestly, what did that not so much as tell me, but scream at me? It's warty! It's a DNF.
But it's also post-mortem time. Why could I not get interested in this? I think one reason was Dubdin's increasing use of Italian terms when everything else was in English, That doesn't impress me and was, in fact, annoying. On top of that there was one character after another paraded across the pages and not one of them made an impression on me. I could neither identify with any of them, nor develop any interest in them. So I decided to call this one and move onto something I would really like to read. Contrast this with The Salbine Sisters which really grabbed me from very early on and wouldn't let me go. Life's too short.