Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Amsterdam has a long history as a cosmopolitan hub for commerce, banking, shipping, fishing, the international jewel trade and a lot more. It’s a fascinating city that draws all sorts of people. So it makes sense that it’s also a very effective context for a crime story. To show you what I mean, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master.
Henk van der Pol is an Amsterdam police detective who’s getting to the point of thinking about retirement. He and his wife Pernilla have a good life, and their daughter Nadia is at university and settled in. Then one day, he’s following his morning ritual of spending some time looking out over Amsterdam Harbour when he sees a dog walker go on the alert. It’s soon clear why: the body of a young woman has floated to the surface of the water.
The woman is unidentified at first, but she does have a tattoo on her ankle. With the help of an old army friend, van der Pol learns that the tattoo is the insignia of a dangerous Hungarian group. He and his police partner Liesbeth follow the trail to ‘Little Hungary’ in the Red Light District (RLD), and almost immediately reach a proverbial dead end. Van der Pol’s contact there won’t say anything, making it clear that she’s afraid. What’s more, van der Pol is facing a great deal of pressure from his station captain to leave the case alone. In fact, he’s officially removed from it. With the case likely destined for the ‘unsolved’ file, van der Pol is sure that no-one will do the work needed to find out who the dead woman was, nor who killed her. But as he puts it,
‘She didn’t need excuses, she needed justice.’
So van der Poel and his two teammates look a little more deeply into the case. That’s when it becomes clear that some very important people, including their bosses, do not want this solved.
As if this weren’t enough, members of the Hungarian group associated with the tattoo have found out that van der Pol is asking a lot of questions. This puts him, Pernilla and Nadia in danger, as the gang wants this case left alone at least as much as van der Pol’s bosses do. Still, he discovers that the dead woman’s name was Saskia, and that she was, as they suspected, Hungarian.
Now van der Pol has to decide who can be trusted and who can’t as he tries to get to the truth about the murder. And in the end, he finds the answers. He also finds a lot of corruption and self-protection.
This has been called ‘Amsterdam noir,’ and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a dark story, and it doesn’t have the sort of ending where everything is made right again, even when we learn the truth. Many of the characters have to make choices that are very morally ambiguous. Even van der Pol, who is a good cop, is faced with some difficult decisions; and it’s interesting to wonder what we might do in the same situation. What’s more, it’s not always clear which characters can be trusted. And, without spoiling the story, I can say that there are a few cases of, ‘I don’t like you and I don’t trust you, but we can help each other.’
That said though, unlike some noir stories, this one doesn’t focus on brutality. There is violence, as you might expect, but it isn’t the main plot thread. Readers who don’t care much for gore will be pleased to know that a lot of it is ‘offstage,’ although it’s implied.
The story is told from Henk van der Pol’s point of view, in first person. So we get a strong sense of his character. He comes from a long line of fishermen, so the sea is in his blood, as the saying goes. He and Pernilla even live on a houseboat. He’s a little weary, but not so jaded that he doesn’t care about Saskia’s death. Readers who are tired of drunken, demon-haunted noir anti-heroes will be pleased to know that he is none of these. He and Pernilla have a basically sound marriage, and he has a strong bond with Nadia too.
It’s also worth noting Pernilla’s role in the story. She’s a journalist with her own contacts and information-gathering skills. She doesn’t have an official role in the case; still, her husband is very well aware of her professional ability. More than once, she provides helpful information.
Still, van der Pol is no idealist. He’s well aware of the way corruption and self-preservation can work. And he’s developed a keen instinct and ‘street smarts’ over his years on the police force. As he gets closer to the truth, he’s just as much aware of how much danger there is for him and his family. And I think I can say without spoiling the story that he’s more than a match for the forces arrayed against him.
The story takes place in Amsterdam, and there’s a very strong sense of the city in it. We follow van der Pol and his team as the trail leads from the waterfront, to the RLD, to some of Amsterdam’s more exclusive restaurants and hotels. There’s a sense, too, of the culture and lifestyle, as well as the real diversity in the city.
This isn’t a long story; in fact, it’s novella-length. Readers who are tired of doorstop-sized novels will appreciate this. Readers who find The Harbour Master to their liking will want to know that there are also two follow-up novellas, The Maze, and Ransom, which continue Henk van der Pol’s story.
The Harbour Master is a noir look at modern-day Amsterdam and the different characters on both sides of the law who populate it. It features a good cop who does the best he can in sometimes very morally ambiguous situations. And it gives glimpses here and there of Amsterdam’s past. But what’s your view? Have you read The Harbour Master? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 22 June/Tuesday 23 June – Simon Said – Sarah R. Shaber
Monday 29 June/Tuesday 30 June – Call For the Dead – John le Carré
Monday 6 July/Tuesday 7 July – The Cry – Helen Fitzgerald