Category Archives: Herman Koch

And Always You’ll See That You Reflect on Me*

You know the feeling, I’ll bet. A child misbehaves in public, and one of your first thoughts might be, ‘What is that mother/father thinking?’ Or, you cringe when your child’s teacher asks to speak to you, and brings up something that may be going on at school. In many societies, what children do is often seen as a reflection on their parents. When children are ‘well-behaved,’ get high grades, and so on, the parents must be doing something right. When they aren’t, or don’t, that’s largely seen as ‘the parents’ fault.’

We all know, of course, that it’s not as simple as that. Children have their own identities, priorities, and thoughts. And their dreams may very well be different to their parents’. That’s not to mention that even loving, involved parents don’t always know everything their children do. In society’s eyes, that doesn’t always matter, though, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, we are introduced to the Tucker family. They’re a working-class family that stays out of trouble. And the parents are happy that their older children are settled and have ‘respectable’ lives of their own. Then, tragedy strikes. Fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is murdered during a fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is at the event, since she designed one of the activities. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. He works with Inspector Bland to find out who would want to kill Marlene. Poirot interviews her parents, and gets very little help from them. They saw their daughter as ‘a good girl,’ if not exactly brilliant. And that respectability is important to them. But, as Poirot learns from Marlene’s younger sister Marylin,
 

‘‘Mum don’t know everything.’’
 

And he learns that Marlene had a habit of finding out people’s secrets – something her parents would not have approved of her doing. And that put her squarely in the sights of a killer.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and (now retired) academician. She is also a mother. And, as is the case with most parents, she wants the very best for her children. She doesn’t expect them to be exactly like her, but they do, in their way, reflect on her. So, when her oldest child, Mieka, decides to withdraw from university and open her own business, it’s hard for Joanne to accept. Part of it is that Mieka’s choice is a very risky one. But part of it is that children’s choices are seen as reflecting on their parents. In the end, entrepreneurship turns out to be right for Mieka, and Joanne is justly proud of her daughter’s success. But it’s not always easy to accept that Mieka will go her own way.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit introduces us to Mason Hunt, commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. He is also the widowed father of fifteen-year-old Grace. The main plot of the novel has to do with a long-ago murder committed by Mason’s brother, Gates. At the time of the murder, Mason helped his brother cover it up out of a sense of loyalty. But that comes back to haunt him later. In the meantime, Grace has problems of her own. She becomes pregnant, and it’s very clear that the father will not be a part of the baby’s life. That’s not at all what Mason had envisioned for his daughter, and in the small town where they live, he has reason to believe Grace’s choices may reflect on him. But, he loves his daughter, and he knows that she has never needed him more than she needs him now. So, he stands by her, and when the baby is born, helps to take care of the child.

Herman Koch’s The Dinner has as its context a full-course dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants – the kind where you have to call months in advance to even have a hope of getting a reservation. The two couples at this particular dinner are Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette. As the dinner moves on through the courses, we learn that this isn’t an ordinary dinner where brothers and their wives get together to catch up. Little by little, we learn that Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are responsible for a terrible crime. The police are looking into the case, and before they get too far, the two couples have to decide what to do. No matter what happens, what the boys did reflects badly on their parents. And both sets of parents are particularly interested in preserving their veneer of respectability. That’s an important thread woven through the story.

We see this issue from the other side, as it were, in Natsuo Kirino’s Real Life. This novel’s focus is four Tokyo teenagers: Toshiko Yamanaka, Kazuko Terauchi, Kiyomi ‘Yuzan’ Kaibara, and Kirari Higashiyama. One day, the mother of the family who lives next door to Toshiko is murdered. And, as it turns out, her son, Ryo, is suspected of the crime. He acts quite guilty, too, stealing Toshiko’s bicycle and telephone and going on the run. Toshiko and her friends each come into contact with Ryo, and each has a different reaction. But they all decide not to inform the police or their parents about what they know. As the events of the next few days play out, things start to spin out of control for everyone, and it all leads to tragedy. Throughout the novel, we see how clearly these young people understand that they are seen as reflecting on their parents. That sense of responsibility is an important part of the way they think.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The story features families who send their children to Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. Three families in particular are the focus of the novel; all of them have at least one child in Kindergarten. When one child is accused of bullying another, the parents begin to divide into two ‘camps.’ That resentment is enough of a problem, but there are other resentments, too. Everything boils over one night at a fundraiser, and it ends up in a tragedy. In this story, we see how important it is to some of these families that their children be perceived as ‘good,’ as ‘bright,’ as ‘well-behaved.’ In a small community like this one, the way children behave really is seen as, at least in part, a reflection on their parents.

And that’s the thing about parents and children. We know intellectually that children are not the same as parents, and that the children of excellent parents can still make serious mistakes. But that’s not always how it plays out…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthias Meissner, Thomas Schwarz-Janen, Frank Peterson and Andrea Silveira’s The Second Element

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Natsuo Kirino

You’re Kidding Yourself*

self-deceptionIt’s said that the biggest lies, and the most difficult to get past, are the ones we tell ourselves. To an extent, we all do a bit a self-deception (e.g. ‘It’s just one piece of cake, after all;’ ‘It’s not my fault! ____ made a complete mess of this project;’ ‘Why are all these people such bad drivers?’). And just a little self-deception is usually harmless enough (it is, after all, just the one piece of cake, right?). But the less honest we are with ourselves, the more trouble we can find.

Don’t believe me? There are plenty of examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean. Crime-fictional characters who deceive themselves can add a solid source of tension to a novel. What’s more, they can be interesting reflections of our human nature.

For instance, in Megan Abbott’s 1950’s-era historical novel Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She has a close relationship with her brother, Bill, who’s a junior investigator for the district attorney’s office. Lora’s life may not be overly exciting, but she’s content. Then, Bill meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant Alice Steele. From the very beginning, Lora doesn’t think much of Alice, and she’s very uncomfortable with what she sees as Alice’s dubious past. But, for Bill’s sake, she tries to make her relationship with Alice work. That gets more difficult, though, when Bill and Alice marry. The more Lora learns about Alice, the more questions she has about her new sister-in-law, and that doesn’t help matters, either. At the same time as Lora is repelled by Alice’s life, though, she is also drawn to it. And it’s interesting to see how she doesn’t really admit that to herself. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be involved in it. In what she tells herself is an attempt to protect Bill, Lora begins to ask questions about the murder. But what, really, are her motives? And what does she really want from her life?

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice features former school principal Thea Farmer. When she left her position, her plan had been to have a house built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But a combination of bad luck and poor financial judgement changed everything. Now, Thea’s had to settle for the house next door – a home she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ What’s worse, the home she still thinks of as hers has been purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington – a couple she refers to as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece, Kim, comes to live with him and Ellice. To her surprise, Thea finds herself developing an awkward sort of friendship with the girl. She sees real writing promise in Kim, and even takes the girl to the writing class she’s been attending. When Thea comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she learns that the police are unlikely to do anything about it as things are. So, Thea decides to take matters into her own hands. Thea is a strong, intelligent character. But it’s interesting to see how she is also able to deceive herself. Her story is told through a series of journal entries that she makes for her writing class; and in those entries, we see how she views people and events in her life. But what is the real truth about the reason she left the school where she was principal? And what about the circumstances that led to her financial difficulties? There are solid hints here that Thea isn’t entirely honest with herself.

That’s also true of Gates Hunt, whom we meet in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. He and his brother, Mason, were raised in poverty, in an abusive home. But each had the means to get out. Mason has taken advantage of scholarships and other opportunities, and now has a ‘free ride’ to law school. Gates has a great deal of natural athletic ability, and has been told he could go far with that. But he’s chosen to squander his talent, and has ended up living on money he gets from his mother, and on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One, night, the Hunt brothers are driving home after a night out when they encounter Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. An argument they had earlier in the day flares up again, and before anyone really knows it, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason helps his brother cover up the crime, and life goes on for the Hunt brothers. Years later, Mason has become the commonwealth (of Virginia) prosecutor for Patrick County. Gates has gotten involved in drug dealing. When he’s arrested and handed a very long sentence, he begs his brother to get him out. This time, Mason refuses to help. Gates retaliates by implicating Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder, and now Mason may stand trial for the killing. Throughout this novel, we see how Gates deceives himself. He blames others for his bad choices, and he doesn’t consider his own role in what’s happened to his life.

There’s a lot of self-deception in Herman Koch’s The Dinner. One night, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, have dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant with Paul’s brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. As the story goes on, and each different course is brought, we slowly get to know these characters. And we learn that these couples have a very dark secret. Their fifteen-year-old sons went in together in a terrible crime. The real purpose of the meal was to work out what they’re going to do about it. And in their conversations, we see how much these people are deceiving themselves about their children, their own roles in the crime, and more.

In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to Niccolo ‘Nick’ Franco. His family came to New York from Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, all went well enough, and the family began to prosper. But then, Nick’s father ended up killing Luigi Lupo in a bar fight. Unfortunately for the family, the victim turned out to be the son of notorious mobster Tonio Lupo. The bereaved father has cursed the family, promising that all three Franco sons (including Nick) will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi was at his death. As we follow Nick’s story, we learn that he gets ‘the Hollywood bug’ and tries to make a name for himself in the silent films. He does well enough at first. But he has grandiose ideas about his future, and he’s not honest with himself about his mediocre acting. It doesn’t help matters that he’s fond of drugs, drink, and women. Nick’s refusal to see his own limitations end up costing him dearly.

And then there’s Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which tells the story of Piriwee Public School, near Sydney, and the families that send their children there. The story’s focus is three families in particular. Trouble starts when the son of one of those three mothers is accused of bullying. He claims he’s innocent, but the accuser’s mother is adamant. Matters get worse as other families choose sides. One night, everything comes to a boil, as the saying goes, and there’s a tragedy. As the families cope with what’s happened, we see just what lies people tell themselves – especially when it comes to their own families and children.

See what I mean? Some of the ways we deceive ourselves aren’t so bad. But some can lead to disaster. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to work on my new novel. It’s only going to take me a couple of weeks, and I know it’s Nobel-worthy – way better than anything else out there.  What?! It is!  😉

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).

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Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Herman Koch, Liane Moriarty, Martin Clark, Megan Abbott, Virginia Duigan

It Don’t Take Long*

condensed-storiesIn real life, murder investigations take time. And that makes sense, when you consider all of the factors that go into solving a crime. But that doesn’t always work well in a novel. Many readers prefer a faster pace and more engagement in their stories. And it’s interesting to see how different crime writers have approached that balance between telling a story in a realistic way, and keeping the story’s pace in mind.

Some writers have even managed to tell an absorbing story that takes place over just a few days, or even less. It’s not easy to pull that off, and still make the story credible. But when it works, that approach can add tension and a solid pace to a story.

Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley is one of those novels. In it, Dr. George Abbershaw is among several guests invited for a house party at Black Dudley, the family of home of academician Wyatt Petrie. The only permanent residents of Black Dudley are Petrie and his uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe. This weekend, though, there are several other people there, including Albert Campion, who would become Allingham’s sleuth. On the first night, Petrie tells the guests about an old family legend concerning a large dagger that’s hanging over the fireplace in the drawing room. Everyone decides to go through the ritual associated with that legend. During the night, Colonel Coombs is killed. Abbershaw is asked to sign a death certificate that identifies the cause as heart failure. But he has his doubts, and very quickly deduces that the victim was stabbed with the dagger. What’s more, one of the other guests turns out to be associated with a criminal gang that claims to be missing ‘something important,’ and demands its return. The gang refuses to let anyone leave until that property, which turns out to be a set of papers, is returned. With this pressure, Abbershaw and, to an extent, Campion, have to work quickly to find out the truth about Coomb’s death and the papers.

There’s a similar sort of short time span in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. A group of people, including Hercule Poirot, board the famous Orient Express for a three-day journey across Europe. On the second night, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his bunk. Poirot is asked to investigate and, hopefully, find out the who the killer is before the train reaches the next frontier, so that the murderer can be handed over to the police. Poirot agrees, and begins by interviewing each of the passengers. A search is also made of their luggage. That information, plus certain clues and pieces of information, leads Poirot to the truth. The truth about the murder stems from an event several years earlier. But the action in the story takes place mostly over just two days.

The context for Kalpana Swaminatham’s The Page 3 Murders is a weekend ‘foodie party’ hosted by Dr. Hilla Driver. In part, the party is a sort of ‘housewarming,’ as she’s just inherited a beautiful upscale home. It’s also intended as a celebration of her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. Hilla is very well-connected, so her guests represent Mumbai’s elite, including a food critic, a well-known writer, a dancer, a model, and a socialite and her husband. Also invited is a retired police detective, Lalli, and her niece (who narrates the story). Right away, it’s clear that there are conflicts among some of the guests, and hidden animosity. But everyone settles in and looks forward to what’s supposed to be the culminating event: a seven-course gourmet meal prepared by Hilla’s chef, Tarok Ghosh. The meal begins with custom-designed starters/appetizers, and it’s soon clear that Tarok planned them as his way of hinting at secrets that each guest is keeping. It’s clear now that he knows more than it’s safe to know. When his body is discovered late the next morning, Lalli is not shocked, given what he revealed. But she is dismayed, of course, and wants to find the killer as soon as possible. Then another death is discovered. Now there’s even more time pressure, and Lalli and her niece work quickly to find out who’s responsible. Again, some of the secrets we learn in this story go back some years. But the action in it takes place over only a few days.

There’s also Kazuhiro Kiuchi’s Shield of Straw. Kazuki Mekari, of the Tokyo Municipal Police Department is given a difficult and unusual assignment. He and a specially-chosen group of officers are to travel to Fukuoka and bring back Kunihide Kiyomaru to face justice in Tokyo. Kiyomaru is responsible for the rape and murder of a young girl, and escaped to Fukuoka. This trip isn’t going to be easy, though. The girl’s very wealthy grandfather has publicly offered a one-billion-yen reward to anyone who kills Kiyomaru. So Mekari and his team will have to protect their prisoner from potentially thousands of people. What’s more, they’ll have to keep their own greed in check. The longer the trip takes, the more likely it is that someone will get to Kiyomaru. So, the team has to move as quickly as possible. The distance between Fukuoka and Tokyo is about 1100 km/685 mi, and on a ‘bullet train,’ that would normally take about six hours. But it doesn’t turn out to be nearly that simple. The bulk of the action in this novel takes place as Mekari and his team travel with their prisoner. But a lot can happen even in the space of less than two days…

As the name suggests, Herman Koch’s The Dinner takes place over the course of one upmarket gourmet meal. Paul and Claire Lohman meet Paul’s brother, Serge, and his wife, Babette, for dinner at one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive restaurants. As the dinner progresses, we slowly learn the backstories of these characters, and we learn about a dark secret both families are keeping. Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, are guilty of a terrible crime. As we find out what happened, we also find out that this dinner had a very specific purpose: trying to decide what to do about that crime. It’s a fascinating story structure: it takes place during one meal, but it has to do with the characters’ entire lives.

There are, of course, plenty of other stories where the action is ‘telescoped’ into a short period of time. It can be tricky to do that effectively but the result can be a solid layer of suspense and an interesting plot structure. Which stories like that have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charlie Sexton.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Herman Koch, Kalpana Swaminathan, Kazuhiro Kiuchi, Margery Allingham

In The Spotlight: Herman Koch’s The Dinner

>In The Spotlight: Martha Grimes' The Anodyne NecklaceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The context of a story can play a crucial role in its atmosphere and in the way the plot plays out.  Let’s take a look at one particular story context today and turn the spotlight on Herman Koch’s The Dinner.

The context for this novel is a dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where reservations have to be made months in advance. One night, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet there for dinner. On the surface, they seem like any other set of middle- to upper-middle-class people: Serge Lohman is a successful politician who seems poised for real achievement; his brother is a former teacher who’s retired for medical reasons. The couples greet each other and the dinner begins.

As the meal goes on, we learn that these people are not at all what they seem. Bit by bit, course by course, the backstories of the four diners are revealed. We find out some very uncomfortable truths about them and their relationships to one another. Also revealed is a terrible secret that they are keeping. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, also fifteen, are guilty of a terrible crime. The police are investigating, and now the families have to face the truth about what’s happened. In fact, that turns out to be the reason they’re dining at this restaurant in the first place. They’ve met to decide what to do about what’s happened. That discussion, and its result, has its own consequences.

The story unfolds as the meal does, and the different sections of the novel are named for the different courses (e.g. aperitif, main course, dessert). And if you think about it strictly chronologically, the novel begins as the meal does, and ends shortly after it does. That context gives the novel what you might call a sense of claustrophobia.

But this novel isn’t really chronological. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Lohman (more about his character shortly), and his way of telling it includes many flashbacks and streams of consciousness. Readers who prefer a strictly linear story, with a clear sequence of events, will notice this.

That approach to telling the story gives readers quite a lot of insight into what the characters are like. And it’s soon clear that they’re very dysfunctional. Each of them has serious flaws that play their part in what happens in the novel. For example, Serge is both pompous and a social climber. One of his main concerns is his image. Paul’s retirement from teaching wasn’t for a physical reason. Rather, it was ‘difficulty managing his anger.’ Other ugly things about each diner are also revealed. And all four of them are, in their way, complicit in what’s happened. Readers who prefer stories with at least one likeable character will notice this.

Since the story is told from Paul Lohman’s point of view, in first person, we get to know quite a bit about him. And it’s not long before we learn that he is probably not a reliable narrator. In fact, he indulges in his share of denial about his role in what led up to the awful crime that’s at the heart of the novel. Through Paul’s eyes, we see the superficiality and consumerism of upper middle class Dutch society. There’s also a critique of and a disturbing look at that group’s racism and ethnocentrism. Or is that critique really Paul’s view? Does he subscribe to these opinions? Readers who enjoy unreliable narrators, and trying to work out what is actually true and what isn’t, will appreciate this.

One of the questions the novel raises has to do with parents’ responsibility for their children. What the Lohman cousins have done is horrible. So on one level, most people would agree they should face justice immediately. But the boys are still their parents’ sons. To what extent should their parents protect them? Isn’t it natural for parents to want to keep their children out of legal trouble? But if they do, isn’t that tacit approval of what they boys have done? And where did the boys learn their attitudes, anyway? The issue of what parents should be expected to do when their children commit crimes is not an easy one.

This is a noir story, and that element is an important part of the novel. The main characters are not nice, or particularly trustworthy, people, and that includes the narrator. We learn what happened, so in that sense, the story has a kind of resolution. But it doesn’t have a very hopeful ending. And one more note is in order here. The crime that’s so important to this story is an ugly one, and Koch doesn’t mince words. Readers who prefer their crime-fictional violence to be ‘off stage’ will notice this. What’s even more unsettling is the reaction of the boys’ parents to everything. The result is a story that doesn’t offer an optimistic outlook on life.

There is, however, dark wit in the novel. In several places, Paul Lohman makes observations about the pretensions of very upmarket restaurants and the people who frequent them. There is also dark wit about the Dutch culture. It isn’t really upbeat, joking sort of wit, though, and is in keeping with the noir nature of the novel.

The Dinner is the noir story of two sets of parents forced to face the reality of what their sons have done. It reveals the dark and dysfunctional side of family relations, and offers a barbed look at life in modern-day upmarket Amsterdam. It’s also got a singular and somewhat claustrophobic context. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dinner? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 22 August/Tuesday, 23 August – Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty 

Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart

Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton

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Filed under Herman Koch, The Dinner

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 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.

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