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Detective Zen returns to the fray

AND THEN YOU DIE. By Michael Dibdin. Pantheon Books. 183 pages. $21.95.

Aurelio Zen is supposed to be dead. So how come this famed Italian crime-fighter is sunning himself on a beach in Tuscany? Moreover, who is the stranger occupying Zen's chair - and why doesn't he move?

Rejoice, fans of the world-weary dottore. His checkered career with the elite Criminalpol in Rome did not, after all, reach a premature conclusion in Sicily. Author Michael Dibdin has resurrected Zen for And Then You Die, the eighth installment in a detective series notable as much for its insider view of Italian life as its cynical, sometimes twisted, yet honorable hero.

Zen's near-death experience in a car-bombing one episode back colors this book. The tall, 50ish detective seems almost sanguine about personal peril in an Italian witness protection program as he awaits his turn in the witness stand in a U.S. Mafia trial.

If ongoing assassination attempts keep Zen jumpy, romance with a tall, gorgeous businesswoman from Lucca relieves some anxiety.

Dibdin, a native of England living in Seattle, writes as if rooted in the old Roman Empire. He conjures the country's murky system of doing business through personal favors, family ties, business deals, sex, and money. Rules? Laws? No one in Dibdin's Italy pays much attention, even in the Holy See or top levels of government. Yet Zen - flaunting the rules of his own department - somehow prevails in cases set in Rome, Venice, Perugia, Naples, even the Vatican.

An extra value in each of the books is the insider view of Italian culture. Even crime-fighters must eat, and Dibdin describes many a delicious dish or traditional libation enjoyed by his hero. In many ways the series' tightly woven style and dark characters echo those of Georges Simenon, the prolific French novelist best known for Inspector Maigret, the Parisian detective who loves fine food and drink.

Still, there are new and more American wrinkles in And Then You Die.

Zen departs his native land for the United States, but winds up in, of all places, Iceland, through an emergency diversion. The side trip allows the author to introduce some memorable new characters and explore a bit of the island's unusual landscape and culture.

Other additions - is Dibdin angling for a movie or TV series? - include a murder by Zen, a female accomplice, a high-tech device, a perilous boat ride, even a beautiful woman on a beach, all a la James Bond. Still, reading it one maintains the stolid image of the original detective whose success is a blend of dogged research, legwork, and serendipity.

First-time readers may find this book more accessible than others in the series, but the strength of the main character will likely draw them to explore other works by Dibdin.

Sally Vallongo is a retired Blade senior writer.

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