Sunday, April 7, 2013

『犬のみぞ知る DOG KNOWS』

"Je had van die typische wijkmoorden, met een merkwaardige beslotenheid als in the boeken van John Dickson Carr of bij een treinmoord van Agatha Christie. Dikwijls voelde je bij het begin van het onderzoek de sfeer al aan: die van een bekrompen moord in de enge ruimte van een wijk, en dan moest je daar ook de dader zoeken, of de moorden, waarbij meteen de namen van personen uit andere steden of geheel andere delen van de stad opdoken. Dit leek zo'n gesloten wijk-moord, gebonden aan de onzichtbare wanden van het rayon"
"Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven"

"There are those typical neigbourhood murder cases, with a weird sense of 'closedness' like in those books of John Dickson Carr or a train murder by Agatha Christie. Usually, you'd sense the atmosphere at the start of the investigation: that of a cramped murder in the narrow space of a neighbourhood, where you'd have to find the murderer, or that of those murders, where names of people from different cities or parts of town pop up immediately. This however was one of those closed neighbourhood murders, bound to the invisible walls of the rayon"
"Sad Poodle in Delfshaven"

Because this is a review on a Dutch mystery novel on a blog that is usually mostly on Japanese mystery novels, I predict that this post will have a horrible view count.

A crying poodle with traces of blood in his mouth attracts the attention of the local beat cop, which in turn leads to the discovery of its owner's home. Note that they only discovered the owner's home and not the owner himself, who seems to have disappeared. And probably not voluntary, because there are definite signs that a fight had happened and that blood had been shed. The dog's owner, Vledser, is/was a money lender, which is a fairly dangerous occupation within the world of fictional crime, so commisioner Vissering of the Rotterdam police fears the worse. The only clues? The testimony of the neighbor who overheard some kind of conversation last night and some pages with handdrawn maps left in the room.

'A topographical mystery', is what Cor Docter calls this novel, a detective novel set in a particular region, where the local characteristics, history and culture are to be an integral part of the plot. In Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven for example, this concept comes alive because the story introduces the reader to several places that are related to the local history. I myself know next to nothing of Delfshaven and Rotterdam, so this 'topographical mystery' has a function not unlike the Japanese genre of the travel mystery: mysteries that are set in a particular region with plots strongly related with local folklore/history. In fact, these travel mysteries are usually relatively light on actual, orthodox mystery, but they work a strange mixes between mystery, tourist guides and history books (see also reviews of novels by Nishimura Kyoutarou and Uchida Yasuo). Note that travel mysteries do imply travel, ergo, the detective is usually not at work on home ground. And in a less positive note, travel mysteries also imply fairly easy mysteries of dubious quality. Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen for example features an inspector travelling all over Japan with the local infrastructure playing a big role in the plot and is strictly abstractly seen very close to a travel mystery, but both historically (as it predates the term) as well content-wise, you'd have difficulties finding anyone who would typify as a pure travel mystery.

And as for the contents of Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven, I like it! Readers might have noticed that I don't really read Dutch mysteries, and even then they're set in the Far East (see van Gulik and Aafjes), so it was kinda strange to follow a Dutch policeman investigating a disappearance (which, yes, does turn into murder), but I had fun reading this. Docter has a pleasant way of writing, by which I don't just mean his choice of words, but also in the way he structures the developments of his story: every chapter you're given some new hint, some new events that piques your interest, tempting you into that feeling of 'well, just one more chapter then', until you realize you're at the end of the book already.

The way Vissering works is also one of the more memorable points of the story: he and one of his men Grijphand discuss the case, basically one proposing a deduction while the other acts as the devil's advocate, thus using each other as sounding boards. It works, because different from the Great Detective (TM) a policeman has to work with his colleagues in principle, thus such discussions are what you'd expect. But what makes these discussions good is that Vissering and Grijphand work on an equal status here, with rank playing no role here. It is probably in the big picture just something very small, but it was definitely one of the factors that made this book good for me.

The ending features a nice twist on a familiar trope of the genre, but I especially like the hint Docter left pointing to the solution. So simple, staring you in the face at at least two places, but I had no idea. It was at that moment that I really started to love this book: at first it felt like a Dutch police procedural which was written great (on a linguistic-structural level), and then suddenly every suspect is gathered in one room and Vissering reveals a solution which show this book is definitely part of the Great Tradition.

There are two other books in this series it seems, so I am definitely going after those in the near future. 

Original Dutch title(s): Cor Docter "Droeve Poedel in Delfshaven"

1 comment :

  1. I have not said too much about this series, now have I? ;)

    I also love the thematic structure of this series:

    Droeve poedel in Delfshaven = Whodunit?
    Koude vrouw in Kralingen = Locked Room
    Rein geheim op rijkswegs 13 = Dying Message