Rounded Rectangle: FACT BEHIND FICTION
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A section from

‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II




VENDETTA - Michael Dibdin


A man stood grasping the metal rail pudgy with innumerable coats of paint, staring out into the night as keenly as an officer of the watch. The unbuttoned overcoat flapping about him like a cloak gave him an illusory air of corpulence, but when the wind failed for a moment he was revealed as quite slender for his height. Beneath the overcoat he was wearing a rumpled suit. A tie of some nondescript hue was plastered to his shirt by the wind in a lazy curve, like a question mark. His face was lean and smooth, with an aquiline nose, and slate-blue eyes, their gaze as disconcertingly direct as a child’s.


Oscar Burolo, the wealthy construction magnate has been murdered in his Sardinian estate along with his guests – the architect and their wives. Burolo was a magnetic character – witty, always in the limelight and media savvy, and very successful in business. The Burolo estate was heavily guarded by a state of the art electronic security surveillance system and tested by the Italian military. The entire property was under video surveillance and all footage was archived; this system was one of Burolo’s favourite conversation topics.


One of Oscar’s unsuccessful rivals had once remarked that anyone who still doubted the theory of evolution hadn’t obviously met Oscar Burilo. But it was a waste of time trying to be witty at Oscar’s expense. He promptly took up the story, telling it himself with great relish, and concluding, ‘Which is why I’ve survived and Roberto’s gone to the wall, like the dinosaur he is!’. Oscar the ebullient, the irrepressible Oscar! Nothing could touch him, or so it seemed.


The Night Before


The failure of the security system to detect and reveal the identity of the assassin is crucial to the case, and we are introduced to Aurelio Zen (Vice-questorial officer of the Criminalpol section of the Ministry of the Interior) while he is pondering this as he goes over Oscar’s surveillance. As Zen dissects the case via his thoughts and a report, aspects of his personal and professional life are brought up, like the animosity of his colleague (Vincenzo Fabri), his relationship with his mother (who he lives with), and his crush on a married colleague fourteen years his junior (Tania Biacis) is brought up.


Zen breaks down the prosecution’s case against a suspect already in custody. Renato Favelloni was a guest at Oscar’s estate but left before the fateful incident. Favelloni is a political go-between who fixes deals between industry and government; and he was negotiating with Oscar and a politician referred to as l’onoravole.


Day # 1


At work in the morning Zen realizes that the video surveillance that he signed for from the evidence archives is missing from his pockets. He realizes that it has been removed from his jacket pocket en route to the station but dismisses the problem from his mind vowing to attend to it later by replacing the tape with a dummy.


Later that morning Tania almost asks Zen for a favour but then decides against making it. A curious Zen nevertheless extracts it from her later – Tania wants him to call her home at night and call her away to work because of an emergency. Zen is more than intrigued; he believed that Tania was happily married, and felt emasculated that she would ask him to cover for her (as she would a girlfriend) while she carried on an illicit affair.


Zen makes the call and then stakes out Tania’s place that night. He ends up rescuing her (kind of) from her possessive husband, and she tells him that she wanted to go to the cinema. They part ways and Zen returns home where a sinister waits.


In his home he finds an packet for him containing metallic fragments; this warning is not unlike one Zen saw on TV the night before where the widow of a magistrate claimed her husband had received metal pieces in the mail as a death-threat before he was murdered. A little paranoia grips Zen as he realizes that nothing else in his house has been touched, and the presence of the envelope is like a warning that he too can be gotten to if the perpetrators wished.


Day # 2


The morning starts badly for Zen as he realizes that his hostile colleague Fabri had signed for the surveillance video and knows that Zen has replaced the original with a dummy.


A phone call summoning him to Palazzo Sisti gets Zen back on the field. There he meets another of l’onoravole’s men, who tells him that he knows of the report in which the detective has analysed the prosecution of Favelloni which will not stand up in court. If this happens without another suspect in the picture it will harm the reputation of the politician, and this cannot be allowed. He offers Zen a deal and a scapegoat in the form of Oscar’s lion-keeper who was sleeping with Mrs. Oscar. Zen is also aware that his host knows that he is not above bending the law. This veiled threat remains with Zen as he leaves without committing to anything; but his silence is taken as not having been insulted at the offer.


(Around this point of the story, you begin to realize that though Zen is present in every scene he is surrounded by far more interesting characters like the victim Oscar & Tania. Also apparent by now is Zen’s ubiquitous philosophic commentary which comes across as analytic rather than whining)


After exiting the Palazzo Sisti Zen immediately calls on his friend and former colleague – Gilberto Nieddu who runs a counter-espionage business. Zen describes this man as serious, determined and utterly reliable, there was an air of strength and density about him, as though all his volatility had been distilled away. Gilberto however lets Aurelio down by not taking the issue seriously; his new commercial outlook leaves him unable to grasp the problem and Zen is disappointed with the meeting.


Zen realizes that he must go it alone and the germ of an idea forms in his mind alone, Zen travels to the Rally Bar in a seedy part of Rome to make contact with a police informant. After navigating his way through the precautions that any snitch that has survived so long must take, Zen arrives at the doorstep of Fausto. Despite being at the mercy of the police, Fausto happily cooperates with Zen and provides him false identification and other requirements.


Fausto Arcuti’s lifestyle might appear unimpressive, but as a broker of favours and information he was second to none.


They part ways with Zen promising to look in to the recent murder of another informant that has Fausto paranoid for his own life.


At home that evening he finds the stolen tape unwound all over his floor. Then he is visited by his friend Gilberto who insists on keeping Zen’s mother at his home while Zen is away from home. Their friendship remains.


Day # 3


Aurelio replaces the original tape with some clever sleight of hand, leaving the aggressive archivists red-faced for having taken on the wrong man. Things between him and Tania begin to move forward and they go for a supposed working lunch that ends up being takeaway at Aurelio’s home. She confesses her pathetic marriage and troubles, and the resulting loneliness. Before their intimacy goes any further a car that was tailing Zen for the last two nights reappears and a gunman enters his home. He alerts the police in time and the intruder escapes


Day # 4 (Friday)


The detective makes his way to Sardinia to inspect Oscar Burolo’s property himself.


He must not let the clear sky, pure air and early morning sense of elation go to his head, he knew. In those mountains blocking off the sun, turning their back on the sea, lived men who had survived thousands of years of foreign domination by using their wits and their intimate knowledge of the land. Generations of policemen, occasionally supplemented by the army, had been drafted there in a succession of attempts to breaks the complex, archaic, unwritten rules of the Codice Barbaricine and impose the laws passed in Rome. They had failed. Any collaboration with the authorities was considered treachery of the most vile kind and was punished accordingly.


He is traveling under the assumed identity of Reto Gurtner – the representative of a Swiss businessman looking to buy a vacation home in the Mediterranean. Zen goes to great and subtle extents to portray himself as a foreigner - his accent is nuanced, his sociability is tempered and he restrains himself from the standard police techniques of questioning. In order to access the property Zen makes contact with the agent put in charge of disposing it.


Day # 5 (Saturday)


Zen rules out the caretaker’s involvement in the crime at first sight at the estate.


As soon as he set eyes on Alfonso Bini, Zen knew why the caretaker had been ruled out as a suspect virtually from the start. Bini was one of those men so neutered by a lifetime of service that it was difficult to imagine them being able to tie their own shoe-laces unless instructed to do so.


Zen mentally works the angles of the murder in his mind still unable to come to terms with what is disturbing him as he wanders the mansion, and then the grounds of the estate. He comes to realize that Oscar’s show and tell of his surveillance was brilliant misdirection because while the cameras he so proudly spoke of were displayed for all to see, no one realised that there were more surveillance cameras that were hidden. Certainly Oscar’s wife Rita didn’t expect her affair with their lion-keeper to be recorded.  On the edge of the property he notices and enters what is this lion-keepers work area. The laconic lion-keeper – Furio Padedda pays little attention to Zen.


The low growl sounded out again. Inside the hut, its weight of emotion seemed even greater, an expression of grief and loss that was almost unbearable.

‘What was that noise? Zen asked.

The man continued to eye him with open hostility, as though trying to stare him out.

‘A lion,’ he said at last.

‘Ah, a lion.’

Zen’s tone remained politely conversational, as though lions were an amenity without which no home was complete.


The encounter ends fruitlessly for Zen but the day ends terribly. He finds out that the Burolo estate was built over the property of a local which didn’t sit well with the people; and then Oscar himself foiled the locals’ attempt at kidnapping him and killed a young boy in the process. A motive is established against the locals. But soon enough Zen is found out to be a policeman, and all doors in the recalcitrant village close on him. The hotel tells him that he needs to check out because of the renovations, his Mercedes’ electricals are shredded and he has to wait for hours for the bus. As he waits for transport he is confronted by a man who introduces himself as Vasco Spadola – the high-profile Mafiosi who Zen put away using fabricated evidence.


Zen ground out his cigarette.

‘All right, so you’ve found me. What now?’

Spadola released a breath of cigar smoke into the air above Zen’s head.

‘What now? Why, I’m going to kill you, of course.’


But Spadola doesn’t want to just kill Zen, he wants to make him suffer for it; not by killing him slowly in particular but by keeping the threat looming over him. Since Zen has effectively no where to run and no one to turn to in Sardinia for the foreseeable future Spadola’s threat is credible. But Spadola is a proud Mafiosi drunk on the recent success of killing the informant who did him in so he slips and lets Zen escape.




A chase ensues from the village towards the forests finally ending in the caves beneath the Burolo estate. At the end of the chase the mystery unravels.


Years ago the Sardinian whose property was covered by the Burolo estate was ashamed of his daughter’s relationship with a man. She was isolated, locked up and left to fester in her own filth in a cellar, where she spent her life. Her sanity was naturally shaken and her mind was lost for good – all she knew was a hatred for the family who imprisoned her. The family who lived upstairs.


Day # 11 (Friday)


Zen becomes the toast of the department back home. He basks in the unspoken awe after having assisted l’onoravole, and partakes uncomfortably in the macho banter that accompanies the situation. During Zen’s visit to Sardinia Tania’s domestic situation worsens and she ends up leaving her husband; Zen begins to date her.


The book ends with Zen leaving a big party after brief words and a handshake with l’onoravole, who offers Zen his help if ever required.


Zen made the appropriate noises, then gracefully withdrew. As he headed towards the door, towards his evening with Tania, the words were still ringing in his ears. ‘If there’s ever anything you need…’ Better than money in the bank, he thought. Better than money in the bank.




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Michael Dibdin


A map of Sardinia off the Italian coast

Rufus Sewell will play Aurelio Zen in the film.

A dark & lean character on the same lines as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.