Readers familiar with Detective Aurelio Zen of the elite Italian Criminalpol squad will be glad to meet up with him again in Michael Dibdin's latest novel, ``Dead Lagoon''(Pantheon Books, 1994, $21).
This moody and atmospheric novel is set in Venice - Zen's hometown. He's back in Venice after a long absence and he's back under false pretenses. Ostensibly to investigate the haunting of an old family friend, he's actually back in the crumbling city of his youth to find the body, dead or alive, of a wealthy American businessman.
With no real authority and no leads, Zen is reminded that amid the shifting light and water of the lagoons, nothing is what it seems - not even the skeletal corpse discovered, unburied, on the Isle of the Dead. Corruption within the police department is a way of life and people who pretend to be friends are enemies.
Dibdin is the author of eight other novels, including ``Ratking,'' which won the Crime Writer's Association Gold Dagger Award. ``Dead Lagoon'' is his fourth Zen novel.
Dibdin, 47, was raised in Northern Ireland and has lived in Canada, Italy and Britain. He currently lives in Seattle where he recently finished ``Dark Specter,'' which he describes as an all-American airport thriller.
It will be published in the United Kingdom this summer and will be out in America this time next year.
In a phone interview, Dibdin (the name comes from an Anglo Saxon word meaning deep dean or valley) said he lived in Italy for five years in the late '70s and early '80s when he got a job teaching English as a foreign language in Perugia. There he wrote his first Aurelio Zen book.
He also lived in Venice for six weeks in 1991 researching ``Dead Lagoon.''
He describes a Venice that is lively during the daytime, filled with tourists and students, but virtually closes down at night.
``At night and off season you discover there's little happening,'' he said. ``It's spooky in the evening. The Venetians stay at home, lock their doors and watch TV.''
Dibdin says he's been making a living as a writer for about 10 years.
``I've been scribbling away since I was in my teens,'' he said. ``In 1976 I had an idea for a book involving Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. It got published in 1978 as `The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.'
``When I look back now it's hard to say how I made a living for many years. I was doing this and that, from teaching to house painting. I always thought I would make it as a writer - a lunatic idea - but I had faith that I would get published.''
Dibdin is living in Seattle now but has lived in Oxford for the past 10 years.
``I may yet settle in Seattle,'' he said. ``But if I do, I'll go back to London regularly. London is the network center for me regarding books and book promotions.''
Dibdin said he's planning another Aurelio Zen book, too, which will require a return trip to Italy.
``It's amazing what can happen when you start a series,'' he says. Readers want to see the return of the same character again and again. Fortunately, he doesn't mind the demands of the audience that require him to frequently visit Italy.
He says his Zen books are considered ``crossover'' mysteries enjoyed by an audience larger and broader than those readers addicted solely to mysteries. Indeed, ``Dead Lagoon'' is short on actual mystery and long on atmosphere and what English teachers across the nation refer to as ``a sense of place.''
Dibdin says his readers include those who love Italy and those who've never been there.
Most writers loathe book tours but Dibdin said he faces his upcoming publicity tour philosophically.
``Writing is a very lonely business,'' he said, ``and I like to get out of the house and meet people and actually have contact with people who read my books. I need to get that sense that people are reading my books.''
And like most writers, Dibdin also is a reader. He likes many popular mystery writers, including Elmore Leonard, and isolated books by other people.
``I was just reading `Better than Sex' by Hunter Thompson,'' he said. ``It made me laugh out loud.'' His review of Thompson's book was scheduled to appear in a British newspaper, The Independent, earlier this month.