Michael Dibdin – End Games (2007)

End Games is actually Dibdin’s last book – he died in 2007 – and therefore also the last in the reasonably well-known Aurelio Zen series, but it was the first which I have read. And very peculiar it is too. I would be fascinated to know if other books in the series follow the same kind of trajectory or are quite different; however I have to admit that I did not like the book enough to make the effort to find out,  so would be very grateful for any comments from Dibdin experts/aficionados.

At the time of this book Zen is happily married, although we do not meet his wife as he is on secondment to a posting in a remote and backward part of Southern Italy. While very disillusioned with his job he is not therefore a cynical/drunk cop stereotype. What is peculiar about the book is that it is very much two books in one; while the halves are, very loosely, joined by the plot, the mismatch is so glaring that there is never any cohesion.

One half of the book is a pretty traditional cop investigation of the murder of an American in the small town where Zen is temporarily in charge of the police. This is the bad half of the curate’s egg. The investigation, plot and mystery are all decidedly routine depending on somewhat tedious gangster/mafia machinations with lashings of what I considered pretty predictable local ‘colour’ thrown in. Nothing of any real interest here and very much in a realist mould.

The other half (it is actually much less than half in terms of narrative attention and plot importance but because it was so much more interesting it appears as being equal) is a kind of fantastic parody of the entire da Vinci code genre. A bonkers American billionaire with a penchant for computer games has become bored with the possibilities they offer and decides instead to search for the menorah and dump it at sea in order to stave off the day of judgement (‘the Rupture’) which his fundamentalist girlfriend has convinced him is imminent! To quote…

‘Why piss around within the limits of the current technology when there was this persistent universe game that had been running for thousands of years, with killer graphics, no sharding or instancing and unlimited bandwidth?’

As even this one sentence should indicate Dibdin’s writing here is crisp, accurate, well-researched and very funny. The satire manages to be both broad – of da Vinci type nonsense, LA trendiness, gamers  among various targets – but also very accurate (and I quite like it when a writer accurately satirises some group I belong too). It is all fantastic, non-realist, indeed almost surreal. It is extremely successful.

But it exists in complete disharmony with the rest of the book and, as previously remarked, the bridging points are quite inadequate to make two such disparate narrative styles and modes cohere. So the conclusion has to be that End Games is a mess – a mess of two halves, one somewhat tedious and uninteresting the other fascinating, funny and verging on the brilliant.