Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Secret Adversary

"Ik ben alleen bang dat een dermate interessant geval zich in de practijk niet voor zal doen. Belangrijke misdaden, wèrkelijk intelligent bedachte en uitgevoerde moorden, worden hoe langer hoe zeldzamer. Het is alsof de mensen niet meer durven, bang zijn voor de moderne, verfijnde hulpmiddelen van de politie."
"Een tip van Brissac"

"But I am afraid such interesting cases don't exist in reality. Important murders, keenly thought-out and executed murders are becoming rarer by the minute. It is like people don't have the guts anymore, scared for the modern, sophisticated instruments of the police."
"A Tip from Brissac

And because this is a post on a fairly unknown Dutch mystery novel on a site mostly about Japanese mystery fiction, I once again predict a horrible view count!

I was made aware of Dutch author/actor Jan Apon's detective novels about half a year ago (from a Japanese source!), but his books seldom seem to pop up in second hand stores, so it took a while before I finally got my hands on one of them. Een tip from Brissac ("A Tip from Brissac", 1940) was the last book in Apon's Raoul Bertin series and starts by introducing us to André Babelay, wealthy and influential banker. We follow him on this typical day, getting acquainted with his lover, learning about his wife's adultery, see him sadistically push a company into destruction and finally, we see him die. To be precise, he is killed. The Sûreté's inspector Chadel calls in ex-collegue Raoul Bertin to help him with this case, in which almost everyone seems to have a motive to kill Babelay, and also everyone seems to have a connection to the mysterious moneylender Brissac, who might or might not be involved in the murder.

I wasn't able to find anything about the contents of this novel, so I was not sure what to expect precisely when I opened the book, but it was a surprisingly fun, actually. We have here all the ingredients you'd expect in an orthodox detective novel, and it's overall done very well. After the initial part leading up to the murder, we're treated to an investigation filled with sharp observations and keen deductions about the coming and going of several suspect parties to the crime scene, and the way the name Brissac slowly becomes more prominent as the story continues is great. And while it's not very original, the setting of a rich banker murdered in his own library, a mansion with suspicious servants and guests, people going in and out the mansion, the classic atmosphere is what I enjoyed greatly. Sure, Cor Docter's novels were a bit more realistic (slightly), but I am personally definitely more a fan of the more classic tropes.

Een tip van Brissac has its shares of flaws though. During the denouement for example, Bertin conjures up a series of evidence of which I am pretty sure I wasn't informed of until then. But then again, it was pretty easy to guess who the murderer was because of that one strange, ah yes oh so strange action that person took... The middle part of the book is great though, with the investigation moving at a pleasant pace and new deductions and revelations made once a while to keep the reader hooked. Apon apparently wrote radio dramas after World War II, but Een tip van Brissac, with its many time-stamped scene changes (there are no formal chapters) and fast-paced dialogues might be an early experiment of Apon into that medium.

I also have a strange habit of reading Dutch mystery novels that aren't set in the Netherlands. Van Gulik's Judge Dee and Aafjes' Judge Ooka are set in different eras in the Far East. Een Tip van Brissac (and I assume the rest of the series) is set in France. Cor Docter's novels seem the expection really, though it 's probably more because of my eclectic reading than a common trope in Dutch mystery fiction.

And the fact that Raoul Bertin is an ex-policeman is interesting though. Detectives in Dutch mystery fiction are moften official police detectives (or judges...), and while the term amateur detective might not be correct, the fact Bertin has no official authority concerning the investigation is something that struck me as odd.

All in all a little surprise. Een tip van Brissac isn't perfect, but it was definitely a fun Dutch mystery to read, and definitely the most classic in form of the books I've read up until now (admittedly, not very much though). Let's hope I'll be able to find some more of Apon's books!

Original Dutch title(s):  Jan Apon, Een tip van Brissac


  1. The problem with finding these old Dutch detective stories hinges on two things: a lot of them were (mainly) distributed through lending libraries, which limited the print run and pretty much doomed the ones that weren’t discarded to being collector-items. I remember reading that some titles from writers like Anton Beuving should be considered lost, because not a single copy has turned up after all these decades!

    A second problem is that (as Marco Books told me) publishers over here, with some well known exceptions here and there, don’t do all that much were reprints are concerned. Once a book from a lesser known writer goes out-of-print, your only shot is the secondhand book market. Even De Fontein seems to have stopped mass reprinting the very profitable De Cock-series after Baantjer passed away in 2010.

    You’re correct that Dutch detectives are nearly always official investigators and have noted this before with a prediction added, that I’ll probably stumble across a story that will be the complete opposite of what I thought was typical of a Dutch mystery novel. Well, Ted O. Sickens’ De man die ‘n paar maal vermoord was (The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times, 1942) made that prediction come true and one you’ll likely enjoy as it's a true Dutch Golden Age mystery.

    1. I was definitely I managed to pick this one up. Apon's "Een zekere Manuel" was also translated in German, so depending on the price, I might even consider getting a German version if it turns out to be impossible to get a Dutch copy...

  2. Sounds interesting but I doubt I'll ever get a translated copy of it.

    1. It's a pretty obscure book (also for the reasons TomCat gave in the comment above), so alas, very doubtful it will get translated at this stage...