The novels take the reader around Italy: 'Ratking' (1988) is set in Umbria; 'Vendetta' (1990) on Sardinia; 'Cabal' (1992) in Rome; 'Dead Lagoon' (1994) in Zen's home city of Venice; 'Cosi Fan Tutti' in Naples; 'A Long Finish' (1998) in Piedmont; 'Blood Rain' (1999) in Sicily; 'And Then You Die' (2002) in Tuscany; 'Medusa' (2003) in Alto Adige; 'Back To Bologna' is self-explanatory for location and 'End Games' (2007) is set in Calabria. This tour is aided by the fact that, at the end of 'Ratking', Zen is promoted, as a result of a throwaway comment to a civil servant. He is made a Vice-Questor in the Polizia di Stato based in Rome, and effectively works like the equivalent of an FBI agent in the USA, being sent to any region where he is needed. Each region is well portrayed, so the image we receive of Italy is of a beautiful country, but one in which you cannot act without coming up against conflicting vested interests.
This portrayal has been carried forward by the recent television series. Rather than gallivanting around Italy, in the series, the stories play out in short driving distance of Rome. They were produced in the order: 'Vendetta', 'Cabal', 'Ratking' and featured ongoing story elements not appearing in the novels. Rather than living in Venice, Zen's mother, who he lives with, is located in Rome. Zen has a relationship with a secretary in the novels, but this does not start at the beginning of the sequence, as it does in the television series with Tania Moretti. In the novels, Zen starts off being in his mid-40s; we know his father served with the Italian forces that fought with the Germans in the USSR and supposedly never returned. There are implications he is related to a man he meets, as a result of his father surviving the war and bigamously marrying a Polish woman. These facts suggest that Zen, in the novels, would have been conceived between 1941-3 (when Italians were fighting with the German Army in the USSR or slightly before this date), making him around 45 when 'Ratking' is set and 64 by the time of 'End Games'. Not unusually, Dibdin probably envisaged his detective as much the same age as himself.
In the television series Zen is far younger, not yet 40 in 2010, and, so, it is his grandfather who fought in the war. It is interesting, though, to note, that despite the passage of time since the late 1980s, many of the issues the television Zen faces are identical to those that the novel Zen faced earlier. The technology may be more convenient and some more Mafia be imprisoned, but nothing much else about Italian society seems to have changed, probably a sentiment Dibdin would have recognised.
The style of the television series, however, references far further back than 1988. It seems to be right out of 'La Dolce Vita' (1960) and '8½' (1963) with Zen and his colleagues in classic-cut tight suits and his love interest Tania Moretti in almost a uniform of silk blouses and a tight, knee-length pencil skirt. (I was also reminded, ironically, of the BBC French language course 'Suivez La Piste' which though first released in 1968 has the early 1960s styling in the photos. It is a detective story to help Britons learn French and the audio is now accessible online.) Zen wears designer sunglasses and drives an Alfa Romeo, but these have a timeless quality and are black and sleek rather than showy. Anyone who has encountered pretty prosperous Italians in the 2000s knows that all of these clothes are far too under-ostentatious for a country where it seems compulsory to exhibit wealth whatever context you are working in, especially in Rome. The series, despite being alert to current technology and issues such as immigration from Eastern Europe, intentionally seems to hark back to an older Italy of the mid-20th century in which things were far less gaudy. Zen is gallant but also an vigorous lover; he is independent and intelligent but still lives with his mother; he is serious about his work but still turns out dressed as if he was on a catwalk.
Rufus Sewel as Aurelio Zen in 'Zen' (2011)
demonstrating many of the characteristics
of Mastroianni's character