Amsterdam is one of the most international cities in the world. That makes sense when you consider how long it’s been a commercial and banking hub. The city has a rich history of welcoming people from all over the world; as a result, it’s got a diverse population. At the same time, there’s a strong history of Dutch culture as well. And the city itself is beautiful. But don’t let that beauty fool you. There’s plenty of crime in Amsterdam, at least if you read crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of others.
One of Nicolas Freeling’s series features Piet van der Valk of the Amsterdam Police. He is married to Arlette, who is French, and who is a match for her husband in terms of her ability to follow leads and solve cases. In fact, this is one of those series where the sleuth relies far more on his spouse for insights and help than on work colleagues. Beginning with Love in Amsterdam (AKA Death in Amsterdam), this series is a ten-novel collection. Only it’s not quite. There are two novels that follow this series, and feature Arlette only. And there’s a case that Freeling wrote later – a ‘recovered’ case of van der Valk’s. Put together, it’s an interesting look at Amsterdam and at Dutch culture.
Simone van der Vlugt’s first novel for adults was The Reunion. In that novel, we are introduced to Sabine Kroese. As the story begins, she is returning to work in an Amsterdam bank after taking some time off to treat depression. When she returns, she finds that things are quite different. Her job and that of her friend Janine have been usurped by a new colleague, and Sabine finds herself becoming the butt of office bullying. She’s already fragile enough as it is, and this just makes matters worse. Sabine’s fragility comes from an incident that happened years earlier, when she and her friend Isabel were teenagers. One night, Isabel disappeared and, despite a massive police search, was never found. Sabine has very few memories of that night, and she’s been working with a psychologist to try to rebuild her life. Her memories begin to return in small bits when news comes of a reunion at the school she and Isabel attended. Sabine decides to start asking questions about Isabel’s disappearance, to see if she can jog her memory and if she can find out the truth. But the closer she gets, the more afraid certain people seem to be of what she’ll learn.
Daniel Pembrey has written a three-novella series featuring Henk van der Pol, an Amsterdam police detective who’s getting to the point in life where he’s thinking about retirement. He and his wife Pernilla have a good life aboard a houseboat, and their daughter Nadia is off at university. So the time may be right for him to let go of his career. But then, in The Harbour Master, he happens to be looking out over Amsterdam Harbour one morning when a dog walker notices that a young woman’s body has floated to the surface. A tattoo on her ankle suggests that she is associated with a dangerous Hungarian criminal gang. But it’s soon very clear that there are plenty of people who don’t want van der Pol to solve this crime. And what’s most disturbing is that it’s not just the ‘bad guys’ in the gang who are against him. As it turns out, there’s some high-level self-protection and corruption involved too. The follow-ups to this story are The Maze and Ransom, which continue van der Pol’s story.
Henk van der Pol isn’t the only fictional Amsterdam detective to live on a houseboat. David Hewson’s Pieter Vos does, as well. When we first meet Vos, in House of Dolls, he’s been away from the police force for two years. He resigned his position after the disappearance of his sixteen-year-old daughter Annaliese, and hasn’t really recovered. He’s currently living on a houseboat in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam with his dog, Sam. Vos brought back on duty when Katja Prins, daughter of the vice-mayor, goes missing. This disappearance bears a strong resemblance to that of Annaliese. In both cases, dolls are used as cryptic clues. At first, Vos doesn’t want to get involved, but it seems that someone is pressuring him to be drawn into the case. In the meantime, the vice-mayor’s campaign to clean up the streets, as the saying goes, is not going down well with some of the local crime bosses, and this political/criminal element plays a role in the story as well.
And then there’s Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which takes place at an upmarket Amsterdam restaurant. Two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s successful brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet there for dinner. The different parts of the novel are separated by the names for the different courses of a gourmet meal. So on the surface, readers follow the conversation among the brothers and their wives. But as each course is served, the layers of these very dysfunctional characters and their histories are peeled back. So we learn about the families’ pasts, and some very dark secrets, one in particular, that they are keeping. We also learn the real reason for which they’ve met for this reason. Throughout the novel, Koch also shares several aspects of modern Dutch culture and life.
Amsterdam is an international, cosmopolitan city with a rich past, a thriving culture and some beautiful sections. And the Van Gogh Museum. There are wonderful restaurants and fine music, too. And the people I’ve met there have been friendly and helpful. But peaceful? Not so much, at least in crime fiction…
ps. The ‘photo is of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It’s much better than any I could take, so thanks to AnneFrank.org. My visit there was a truly moving experience which I won’t try to put into words. I heartily recommend you make a visit if you can. Learn more about it right here.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scandinavian Skies.