The Sins of Amsterdam Were Still a Recent Surprise*

AnneFrankHouseAmsterdam 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 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.


Filed under Daniel Pembrey, David Hewson, Herman Koch, Nicolas Freeling, Simone van der Vlugt

31 responses to “The Sins of Amsterdam Were Still a Recent Surprise*

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    There was a very good UK TV series of Van der Valk back in the day, starring Barry Foster – definitely worth checking out if you can!

    • Oh, yes, KBR, I know what you’re talking about! I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, ‘though I never got to see it. I hope I’ll get the chance at some point.

  2. Col

    The Van der Valk series takes me back a bit. I did try one of the books a year or two ago but it wasn’t that great IMO. Pembrey’s books are more to my taste. I also want to try Janwillem van de Wetering’s Amsterdam Cops series one day.

    • I do, too, Col, so thanks for the reminder. I like the Van der Valk novels better than you do, but I completely agree with you that the Pembrey stories are well done. I hope we’ll see more of van der Pol.

  3. I loved the Van Der Valk TV series too, though I imagine it would probably seem very dated now. Great theme tune though! Michael Robotham’s ‘The Night Ferry’ has a twist on the sex trade aspects of Amsterdam by centring his plot on forced surrogacy and, like all of Robotham’s books, is excellent.

    • Oh, I’m so glad that you mentioned that one, FictionFan! I left a gap there, and I’m glad you filled it. Robotham’s got so much talent, hasn’t he? And now you’re making me really want to see if I can dig out that van der Valk series…

  4. Margot: David Liss wrote mysteries set I6th Century Amsterdam that involved business issues such as The Coffee Trader.

  5. Thanks for the overview here, Margot! I’d love to do some armchair traveling to Amsterdam (and it’s on my to-visit list for in-person visiting, one day).

    • It’s a beautiful place, Elizabeth. I hope you do get there someday. In the meantime, armchair travel is a lot less expensive, and you don’t risk losing luggage…

  6. I had a friend who went every year; he absolutely loved Amsterdam. It’s on the bucket list. 🙂

  7. Lived there for six months in 1997.And a few weeks in 2004. Wonderful place to spend time. THE ASSAULT is a terrific novel about Amsterdam (Harry Mulisch). Made into a movie too.

    • I didn’t know you’d lived there, Patti. It is a great place, isn’t it? Thanks too for the mention of The Assault. Something for me to check out, for which I’m grateful.

  8. Also there is a terrific movie (Italian) made in 2014 of THE DINNER. They changed a lot of things but it is still powerful

  9. This was a well-timed post Margot – myself and my daughter were only talking about our trip to Amsterdam well over ten years ago and the impact that Anne Frank’s House had on her as a young teen – great post featuring Daniel Pembry’s books too as well as The Dinner which was horrible but too fascinating to ever forget!

    • You put that very well, Cleo. The Dinner is a very dark book, isn’t it? And yet, it draws you in, it’s so fascinating. And I like Pembrey’s work as well. I’m glad you and your daughter had the chance to go to Amsterdam, and especially, to see the Anne Frank House. It is (to me anyway) a very, very moving experience.

  10. Margot, I don’t recall reading novels set in and around Amsterdam but I have read about the place being a hotbed of vice including homicide, drugs, and smuggling. I also know it to be a beautiful city. Such a contrasting city.

    • There are real contrasts there, I think, Prashant. As you say, it’s beautiful, and has great museums, music, food and so on. But yes, it’s got its dark side, too. It’s a compact city, but there’s certainly a lot going on there.

  11. Kathy D.

    Amsterdam! I have always wanted to visit there, but I guess I’ll have to enjoy it vicariously.
    Such rich history there, the Dutch Resistance in WWII (an artist acquaintance’s uncle was in it, but was caught unfortunately), art, food, culture, youth, beautiful streets. What’s not to like?
    Have to look at photos online and sign.
    It must have been very moving to see the Anne Frank Memorial. Friends have been there and were quite moved.

    • The Anne Frank House really is moving, Kathy. If you ever get the chance to go, I recommend it. And you’re right; Amsterdam is rich in history, culture, and a lot more. Little wonder it’s such an international hub.

  12. Great post on Amsterdam, Margot. Another city to add to the bucket list …

  13. I love Amsterdam, and you express well what the Anne Frank house is like. I really enjoyed the Van Der Valk books too, and the TV series – that theme tune is deadly for getting into your brain and not getting out again.

    • Some theme tunes are like that, I think, Moira. I’m glad you love Amsterdam so much. It is a terrific city in so many ways. And the Anne Frank House…well, I think everyone should have that experience.

  14. Charlotte Sing

    Have been lucky to visit Amsterdam a couple of times. Love it. Such a rich culture and wonderful art galleries. And a strong sense of history everywhere. Loved your post. Have you read “A Cold Death in Amsterdam (Lotte Meerman Book 1) by Anja de Jager? Published November 2015 in UK. It’s had some good reviews and is on my TBR pile 🙂

    • Oh, no, I’ve not read that one, Charlotte! Now I shall have to check it out – thanks for mentioning it. Amsterdam really is a fabulous city, isn’t it? As you say, rich in culture, history and art, among everything else. Thanks for the kind words!

  15. Most of these authors are new to me, Margot. Thanks for adding some new authors for me to follow up on. (Or maybe I should not be thanking you, since I don’t need more books.)

  16. As far as books set in Amsterdam, have you read “The Miniaturist”? I very much enjoyed the experience that historical fiction gave me.
    Also I loved finding the Rembrandt Museum. There are two, the massive
    The Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, his 4 story restored home, complete with printing studio and portrait painting studio on the top floor.

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