Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Knight Time Terror

「Marionette Fantasia」(Garnet Crow)

I meander in hopes of remembering you,
my beloved with your wounded right arm,
Wandering around in search for your sword
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

I've seen a couple of those small free libraries pop up in the neighborhood, where you can exchange novels and books for free: you can simply leave a book you'd like someone else to read behind, and readers can take a book with them for free. I got today's book from such a library.

Every year on the third Tuesday of September, the Speech of the Throne is held by the monarch of the Netherlands in the Hall of Knights, informing both the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives on the outlines of government policy for the coming year. The speech always starts with the sentence "Members of the States-General...," but this year, it is all the monarch managed to say, as at that exact moment, one of the chandelier light fixtures in the Hall dropped down, killing several members of both the Senate and the House, as well as the head security of the parliament. With the several members of the States-General deceased and the Speech of the Throne interrupted, the country is facing a constitutional dilemma, as a lot of procedures that should've been finished now haven't yet. Police Inspector Hendrix is put on the case to investigate whether this was an accident, an act of terrorism or something else, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives decides to have Elizabeth Brederode, the Head Clerk, appointed to the investigation too as Hendrix' partner considering her knowledge about the procedures and on-goings in the political world. As Hendrix and Brederode dig into the curious incident, they slowly realize that there was malice hiding behind it all in Theo Joekes' Moord in de Ridderzaal ("Murder in the Hall of Knights", 1980).

Theo Joekes was a Dutch journalist, writer and member of the House of Representatives during his life and Moord in de Ridderzaal, his very first detective novel, was written during the period he was still an active member of the House of Representatives. The subject matter of this novel was thus more than familiar to him, and while the book opens with a note that the various political functions that appear throughout the book are not based entirely on reality (the political parties mentioned for example are fictional), one can feel that the writer had quite some affinity with the stage of this tale, where various political games, but also the personal lifes of politicans play an important role.

The most singular characteristic of this novel is perhaps the detective role: while Police Inspector Hendrix is obviously a very obvious choice for a detective-character, having the Head Clerk of the House of Representatives act as a detective is quite surprising. Joekes did a good job at utilizing the device of having two detectives: early on in the novel, the two each act according to their own hypotheses, with Brederode of the opinion the incident was a planned murder, while Hendrix following the idea that it might just have been an unfortunate accident. Later on, when the clues gathered seem to suggest murder, the two bounce ideas of each other, with Hendrix obviously having more experience as in criminal investigation, while Brederode shines a light from surprising angles because of her experience in the political world. The Speaker of the House is also added to the mix, as he acts as a 'judge' between the two detectives, weighing their hypotheses and evidences against each other. The result is a fairly chatty detective novel, with two detectives working with each other despite different ideas, and that's something I quite like actually, as it gives a mystery novel a certain dynamic that's sometimes absent in stories focusing on one single detective who only acts on their own ideas.

As for the mystery plot... I did not like it that much. I think my main gripe is that it feels very contrived. The initial incident, of the falling chandelier, serves as an impressive, graphic story opener, but what follows is a plot that hinges on a lot of coincidences or unlikely events. For example, witnesses who just happen to see, and remember, some incredibly minor event that turns out to be important even though nobody would've had any reason to pay attention to that. But then the opposite happens too, with obviously suspect incidents being brushed off as having nothing to do with the case until several pages later, the surprising reveal is made that that suspicious scene was indeed *gasp* important. The scheme uncovered at the end that explains the titular Murder in the Hall of Knights is almost insanely contrived, asking for way too many steps and opportunities for it to fail. if it was only once or twice, okay, I could live with that, but that is not the case here: everything feels artificially conceived, and not in the 'fiction is good because it's artificial' kind of way. Interestingly enough, the plot seems like it'd have fitted perfectly with Higashino's Galileo short stories (not the novels, mind you), even though this book is like two decades older. And while politics do play a role in the plot, you don't need to be afraid for complex political schemes that endanger the whole country or something like that. At the core, The Murder in the Hall of Knights is a fairly standard mystery story.

To illustrate how unimpressed I was with the story: I only remembered halfway through the story that I already knew the thing! Some years ago, I listened to an old Dutch radio play based on this book (which was quite faithful to the original book, I know realize), but I had completely forgotten about it. You'd think that a setting like the Hall of Knights and the Speech of the Throne would make a better impression with me, but no. The radio play was originally broadcast in 1982 by the way, so two years after the book's original release.

One thing I realize now as I write this is that I think the setting is pretty good. If you say "political center of the Netherlands", one might think of some faraway place only accesible for those in the world, but I think most Dutch readers will be quite familiar with the Binnenhof, which houses the Senate, House and the Prime Minister. I don't know how it is in other countries, but the Binnenhof (Inner Court) is easily accessible for everyone and most people actually simply use it as a short-cut to head for the shopping center of The Hague. In every-day use, it's more like a street than "the political center," so it's a place many people will be familiar with even if they have no affinity with politics.
So I am not overly enthusastic about Moord in the Ridderzaal. While I think the story does have some interesting features in the form of its detectives and its location, I think the overall plot is strained with most of the plot-driving developments feeling rather unnatural and manufactured. Joekes did write more detective novels after this first one, but I doubt I'll be going after them actively (then again, I got my copy of this book for free too, though I may just place it back for someone else to read).


  1. If the book is that poor maybe it would be better if you did not put it back!

  2. Hey, I had my eyes on this title and series ever since reading Klavertje moord, a collection of four short stories, but never really returned to it on account of the quality of the short stories. They weren't too bad, but not exactly great either. Going by your review, I was right in being hesitant. So thanks for taking the bullet on this one.

    How much longer do I have to wait for you to finally get around to Appie Baantjer?

    1. Perhaps once that prequel movie is out? :P I never really got into the TV series (I might have seen like four of five complete episodes in my whole life), though I guess I should try one out some time...

      As for Moord in de Ridderzaal, try the radio drama! It's a faithful adaptation you can find easily on the internet.

    2. Ah, yes. The prequel movie and TV-series. Not sure what to think about that, because they seem to ignore everything that could make a prequel actually work.

      Peter Römer should have been given the role of his late father. I mean, you would actually have an actor who looks a younger version of De Cock from the original series. And then there are the supporting characters. A prequel would give them an opportunity to introduce secondary characters from the books, like Albert Versteegh (De dertien katten) and Geert Dijke (Een strop voor Bobby, but they seem to go for TV-original characters. So, yeah, it could go either way with this new series.

      In any case, I hope they at least use the past setting to reintroduce "Stille" Adriaan. Arguably, the best original character from the TV-series who, sadly, only appeared in two episodes.