Friday, July 18, 2014

The Silent Death

"Het werk van een detective, " zei Van der Spyck, "heeft dit gemeen met ieder ander soort werk, dat het alleen op resultaat kan hopen, wanneer het grondig en methodisch wordt verricht; dat wil zeggen, zoo gedetailleerd en volledig mogelijk, zoodat het uitgesloten is, dat eenig punt van belang van de aandacht ontsnapt. Om kort te gaan: het is werk, dat den eisch van wetenschappelijk exactheid stelt!"
"Het lijkt mij altijd veel meer een kwestie van intuitie, zei Ellen.
"Dat," zei Van der Spyck, "zeggen alle vrouwen!"
"Discrete dood"

"The work of a detective", said Van der Spyck, "has this in common with all other kinds of work, one can only expect results, if the work has been done thoroughly and methodologically, I mean, as detailed and comprehensive as possible, so there is no question of any point of importance escaping our attention. In short, it is a work that requires scientific exactness"
"I always thought it was a matter of intuition," said Ellen.
"That is," said Van der Spyck, "what all women say!"
"Discreet Death"

I don't read older Dutch novels (say, from before WWII) often, so when I do read one, I'm always surprised at how much the language has changed since then. Well, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised at the changes in spelling, as for some reason Dutch spelling seems to get revised once in a few years (one of the mysteries of the Dutch language). But sometimes you'll hear people now talking about anglicisms in the Dutch language too, but man, some of these older books have way more anglicisms than contemporary writings!

Jurriaan Focken is an elderly retired laywer who spends his time perusing judicial magazines and the latest court decisions. At least, he did so until his eyes mostly gave up on him, and nowadays his assistant/secretary Ellen spends her time reading out loud the above mentioned judicial magazines and the latest court decisions to her boss. Until the day he was murdered. Someone had slipped a poison pill in old man Focken's medicine case, the murderer knowing quite well that the man wouldn't have been able to see a switch had been made. The murderer has to be one of the family, that is, his two sons, the eldest daughter and the twins and their family, but who? Ellen and Professor René van der Spyck, ex-son-in-law of old man Focken, start an investigation to see who would have gone the trouble of killing a man who couldn't have lived much longer anyway in Dieuke Boissevain's Discrete dood  ("Discreet Death") (1940).

An Dutch oldie, and one with a Japanese link: Discrete dood was once scheduled to appear in as the sixteenth volume of a Japanese anthology of Western detective fiction, in turn based on the German AM-Auswahl selection of international crime fiction. The Japanese version of Discrete dood was never released though, but considering the title almost made it into Japan, I was quite curious to what for story it was. And this time, I didn't even had to get a German translation!

But Discrete dood turned out to be a disappointment. For me, the biggest problem of the book is that it's a bit dull... About 80% of the plot consists of Professor van de Spyck and Ellen just investigating the motives of each family member, with next to no plot developments after the initial murder of old man Focker. I am not against plots that revolve around finding motives within complex family relations (or else I wouldn't have read as much Yokomizo Seishi), but I'd like something to happen in a 200 page story. But Discrete dood is a mostly static story and it never feels like the book is really trying to keep me interested.

The ending is also a bit contrived: a big coincidence here, a piece of information that hadn't been given  to the reader there... Which makes the part I quoted as this review's opening quote even more confusing: Boissevain had ample chance to write Discrete dood as a more fair puzzle story, by simply giving the crucial piece of information some time before it was presented at the conclusion. Yes, the solution requires detailed examination of the facts and I do think it was a fairly okay idea.... if the writer had least given me the facts to examine to start with, instead of throwing them in my face and saying I could have solved the murder if I had looked at them better. The conclusion was the first time I was made aware of those facts!

And as I seem to be talking about the question of amateur detectives / professionals in all of my Dutch mystery reviews... I guess Professor Van der Spyck and Ellen are amateur detectives, though one could argue you could see them as semi-professionals considering they're both lawyers (and one even a professor). Yet their profession isn't really of importance to how they work (both of them could have been anything, actually), so maybe more amateur than professional detectives. You'd almost think Dutch mystery novels are full of amateurs. Almost.

I mentioned in my review of Kawaramachi Revoir that I always get a bit excited when I read books set in places I know. I think this is the first time I had that with a Dutch mystery novel, as it is actually set near the town I live, as well as the city where I attended university. I wouldn't go as far as dub Discrete dood a topographical mystery (it really isn't), but it's always fun to see familiar names and locales.

Boissevain's entry in Dutch mystery fiction history is a bit disappointing, especially if you consider the fact this novel was once selected to be one of the few Dutch detective novels translated to Japanese. I am most of all confused with Boissevain's intentions: was Discrete dood meant to be a fair puzzle plot? If so, why not give me the necessary information? If not, why all the allusions to fair play puzzle plot mysteries? But that's a thing I guess I'll never find out.

Original Dutch title(s): Dieuke Boissevain "Discrete dood"

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