Ratking by Michael Dibdin (Shane's book 2, 2008)

I'm going through a crime fiction phase at the moment, as will become apparent. Ratking, published in 1988, is the first in a series of novels concerning Italian policeman Aurelio Zen. The final Zen novel, the eleventh, was published last year shortly after Dibdin's death.

Although Dibdin was British and apparently lived in Italy for just four years he seems to have acquired a acute sense of the culture. Corruption and bureaucracy frequently get in the way of justice, while the right family connections can halt it entirely.

Dibdin demonstrates all this with an economical first chapter in which a series of phone calls, initiated by the powerful Antonio Crepi, eventually leads to Zen's deployment from Rome to Perugia to investigate a kidnapping.

Ruggiero Miletti, a prominent businessman, has been held captive for more than four months and his friend Crepi is beginning to get worried. Zen, whose presence is resented by the local force, has to tread carefully. The magistrate dealing with the case is a communist who suspects Miletti is the victim of a plot by his children to gain control of his business and sell it to the Japanese. However, the Miletti's are far too powerful to confront directly and Zen must solve the case without destroying his career.

The story is satisfying enough, though Zen isn't an especially compelling character, at least not at this stage in his career, and the Miletti family feel like a familiar series of stereotypes that could be drawn from almost any crime novel. However, Dibdin's sharp examination of Italian society makes for an enjoyable read.