RATKING by Michael Dibdin (Faber & Faber, 1988)

“A ratking is something that happens when too many rats live in too small a space under too much pressure”.

A ratking is not a creature but a condition. It’s a state of a nation.

Dibdin’s subject is Italy, a country where state corruption is so advanced as be as deadly as an inoperable form of cancer. Italy is one of the most conspicuous examples of the misuse of power and the decay of democracy but it is not alone. This novel could be set elsewhere and be just as damning but, at the same time, it is Dibdin’s accurate sense of place that gives the story its credibility.

Ostensibly, this is a generic crime thriller with a maverick cop , Aurelio Zen, appointed to a high-profile kidnapping case. The victim is the head of a prominent Miletti family in Perugia, Umbria. This man has four children and as the investigations proceed the dysfunctional relations between these siblings suggests that the demise of their father would not necessarily be a cause of grieving.

Zen is under no illusions that the can of worms he uncovers will be closed happily. Neither does he see the resolution of the case as being anything but an isolated victory against the wealthy lawyers, politicians and criminals who control the institutions. His pessimism is understandable but also a little frustrating for any reader looking for a more inspirational figure.

In Dibdin’s novel, the absence of mobile phones or internet means that the story seems to belong to a more distant past but in the late 1980s the pervasive and invasive nature of the media was all too evident.

The public death of Aldo Moro was an obvious source for Michael Dibdin’s Ratking.

This passage adeptly identifies how TV contributes to the transformation of judicial system into another thread in the society of the spectacle:  “Once upon a time magistrates had been dull, stolid figures, worthy but uninspiring, above all remote and anonymous. But the combination of television and terrorism had changed all that. A new breed of men had emerged from the vague grey ranks of the judiciary to stamp themselves on the nation’s consciousness: the glamorous investigating magistrates and Public Prosecutors who were to be seen on the news every evening leading the fight against political violence and organised crime. Now all their colleagues craved stardom too, and almost overnight the once faceless bureaucrats had blossomed out in trendy clothes and bushy beards.”

In the novel, a direct parallel to the murder of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978 is explicit to be point that Dibdin places Zen as one of the investigators of this dark chapter in Italy’s history that casts a shadow to this day.

The metaphor of the ratking is used to represent the intertwining and mutual dependency of these destructive forces. These are the vermin eating away at the infrastructure of society which, like the Hydra of ancient mythology resists any threat to destroy it.