In The Spotlight: Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master

>In The Spotlight: Ross Macdonald's The Far Side of the DollarHello, All,

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


Filed under Daniel Pembrey, The Harbour Master

22 responses to “In The Spotlight: Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master

  1. Great post Margot. About to download The Harbour Master. Thank you.

  2. Another author I’ve never heard of: where do you dig them all up, Margot? I despair of my TBR list ever reaching normal proportions… I like the idea of a noir feel to a book but without a misogyinistic, cynical and jaded main characters.

    • I think you’d like this one, Marina Sofia. It has a really solid ‘Amsterdam’ feel to it. And yes, it’s noir, but as you say, it’s not misogynistic. In fact, I was actually impressed with that aspect of it. Some interesting characters, too, actually. If you get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And trust me, I know all too well about the neverending TBR. Mine is completely out of control. I must be stopped.

      • That’s what I say: ‘Stop me or someone might get hurt’ (the cat or a child, with the shelves toppling over on top of them)

        • 😆 Don’t tell anyone, will you, but mine’s got so out of control that Mr. COAMN and I are planning to commission a friend who’s a carpenter to create a new set of bookshelves for us, if he’ll take on the job. When in doubt, don’t stop getting books: get more shelves! 😉

  3. Thanks for this Margot – I’m clearly stuck in the past as the only Dutch detectives I have read are Van Der Valk and DeKock – clearly time to get up to speed!

    • I hope you’ll like this one, Sergio. It’s an interesting look at modern Amsterdam. And I’d like to think you’d like the character of van der Pol. Pembrey uses the ‘essentially good guy faced with ethical dilemmas’ rather well, I think.

  4. I like the sound of this, and always like an Amsterdam setting. Many years ago I had a very very old and decrepit car, and lent it to my brother for a while so he could get to a naval-related job in a port town. He told me that his workmates referred to it as ‘the harbour-master’s car’ because the harbour-master has first dibs on anything pulled out of the harbour, and that’s what this one looked like….

    • I love that story, Moira! And a great name for the car, too. Amsterdam is indeed a great setting, and I think Pembrey does it rather well. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  5. I’ve visited Amsterdam a few times and it really does have a pretty unique atmosphere. Plus those words ‘novella length’ are very tempting… I must resist! I must resist!!!

    • Welcome to the TBR side, FictionFan – we have cookies…. 😉 Seriously, the Amsterdam setting is well done, I think. Only been there a few times myself, and would hardly count myself as any kind of expert. But it rang true. If you do cave in, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. tracybham

    I had heard of these novellas and I am interested. Thanks for adding even more fuel to my desire to read these.

    • If you do get to these, Tracy, I hope you’ll enjoy them. They fit together nicely, so if you do read them, I recommend starting with The Harbour Master, as it lays the groundwork for the other two novelllas, among other things.

  7. Col

    Glad to see Daniel Pembrey getting a turn in the spotlight. I’ve enjoyed the first couple in the series and ought to get back to the third.

  8. This sounds like a book that forces you to ask yourself hard questions, keeping the story in the forefront of your mind. Did you find that to be the case? It also sounds like a book my husband would love. Perhaps I’ll add to his list. Love the quote: “She didn’t need excuses, she needed justice.”

    • It is that sort of novel, Sue, especially in the case of some some of the decisions that face Henk van der Pol. I won’t specify, because I don’t want to spoil the story. But there’s certainly that thread to the novel. And I love that quote, too. Among other things, I think it sums up part of why van der Pol investigates this case.

  9. At least I can’t be tempted into another book as I’ve read this one – a great post and I agree it was nice to have the noir without the gruesomeness!

    • I suppose I’ll have to tempt you next time, Cleo 😉 – I’m glad you enjoyed this one. And yes, I think Pembrey shows skill in conveying the noir without resorting to gruesomeness.

  10. Margot, I have not read Daniel Pembrey yet. I have read stories set in and around Amsterdam, a place for some reason I tend to associate with dark fiction. I know I’m wrong.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Prashant. I have certain associations about places, too, although as you say, I’m wrong about them. I wonder why certain places evoke that sense.

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