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Sleuthing in Rome

The scenery is the star in the pilot episode of Zen, the new Masterpiece Mystery! series, launching Sunday, July 17. Based on the crime novels by Michael Dibdin, and produced by the folks who created Wallander, the serieswhich runs on Sundays through July 31 (check local listings)features dark-and-handsome actor Rufus Sewell in the title role of Italian detective Aurelio Zen. But at least in Vendetta, the first episode in the seriesSewells Zen doesnt seem to have much personality: We keep hearing others talk about how honest he is (Its all a game, Zen. You just dont know how to play it, a successful colleague in the corrupt Rome police bureaucracy tells him). But a squeaky clean reputation and stylish suits alone hardly make for a compelling fictional character.You dont see him do much deduction either: He solves this initial puzzlera murder case fraught with troublesome political ramificationsmore or less by accident. Indeed, the episode is almost more of a thriller than a detective story. So fans of good old-fashioned brains-and-legwork sleuthing may find the program most memorable for the vistas: gorgeous Roman streetscapes and skylines; a picturesque centuries-old village perched at the top of a craggy hill; a roomy palazzo hemmed in by woods; and more. (The series was shot on location in Italy.)Odd, then, that the team behind Zen should need to add another level of exoticism with decisively retro graphics and cinematography. The credit sequence, the slightly washed-out colors, even the odd swift camera tilt all recall movies from the 1960s or 70s, even though the story is set in more contemporary times. You get the feeling that Zens creators are trying to give you the sense of travelling back to a simpler, happier time (a time that, of course, never really existed).New York Times TV critic Ginia Bellafante has called the relatively optimistic Zen the antidote to gloomy Scandinavia-generated crime tales like AMCs ultra-mopey The Killing (based on a Danish series). Heres hoping we soon get a new detective show that hits a happy mediummore revelatory of lifes somber hues than Zen is, but not a positive downer, like the aforementioned AMC offering.

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If you stream Netflix, I think the Idris Elba series "Luther'": is great. The series, at least Season One, does leans towards "positive downer" and it's hard to cut through the accents, but, still, it IS Idris Elba, making it all worthwhile. (Season Two is on BBC One, but not on Netflix yet).

Anybody familiar with the Donna Leon mysteries about Venice? Lots of nicely done characters and good plots. They'd be good on Masterpiece Mysteries, though if I'm not mistaken Leon is an American writer.By the way, I've wondered for years why the grand-daddy of all the masterpiece series, "The Forsyte Saga", has never been repeated. Or has it? Some great acting in that one. It raised a soap opera to art.

Public television and radio in America have long been pretty poor stuff. I don't know why the self-consciously educated classes continue to bow at that altar.

I like the Donna Leon mysteries. I also like David Hewson's Italian detective, Nic Costa. So it does seem like a lot of these Italian mysteries, at least the ones at my branch library, are written by non-Italians.

Irene (7/17 12:18 pm):

So it does seem like a lot of these Italian mysteries, at least the ones at my branch library, are written by non-Italians.

That would pretty much make them something I'd not care to read.

I'd suggest Iain Pears' set of art history mystery novels featuring Flavia di Stefano, as an exception to any rule there might be about the worthiness of novels set in Italy but written by non-Italians. Pears knows his art history backwards, and Italy too. And if you want to go on to something more meaty, try either his best-seller mystery set in early modern England, An Instance of the Fingerpost, or the complex and darkly mysterious novel, The Dream of Scipio, which manages to link the late Roman Empire, the Renaissance and Vichy France in a way that makes a lot of sense.

I stArted to watch the PBS Zen series last night, but the close captioning was all garbled. Do other PBS stations have this problem sometimes ? Another question: why are most PBS sets so dark these days? And it's the same with a lot of fiction sets, even supposedly well-lit offices and living rooms. Is this supposed to be a signal that the tales are "dark", as in evil. Cheap shot.

Paul (5:52 pm), thanks for the pointer to Pears. I downloaded the first chapter to The Immaculate Deception, liked the opening, and got the rest of it. Sounds fun. Thanks again!

In the second episode, Zen learns there is a secret group in Rome, called "The Cabal" who have immense power and are utterly ruthless in using it. Several times Zen is assured that "The Cabal" can never be brought to justice because they are just too highly connected. Defectors from the group are tracked down and made to "disappear." A leader of "The Cabal" appears briefly toward the end to express regret that a character's brother who had defected had to be killed and assure him a requiem mass would be said for his soul. This leader is addressed as "Eminence" and dressed as a Cardinal. I wonder whether this plot line will be developed further.