by Jan C. Roosendaal
Crime fiction started in 1841 with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’. From there it gradually spread over the United States, Great Britain and France. By the turn of the century crime fiction was generally acknowledged as a new and special kind of literature. In the Netherlands it took much longer before its authors made a substantial contribution, though it cannot be said the Dutch were unfamiliar with the genre. Many translations of stories and novels by authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Eile Gaboriau and others were available. Towards the end of the century and in the beginning of the 20th century a few attempts were made by Dutch authors, but production soon petered out and finally came to a full stop. By 1905 barely a dozen novelettes and novels had been published. It looked as if all Dutch writers were of the opinion that they were no match for their foreign colleagues, and had better stay put.
This regrettable situation experienced a sudden and fortunate change towards the end of the Great War. In 1917 Jacob van Schevichaven (1860-1935), using the pseudonym Ivans, published a detective novel called ‘The Man from France’ (De man uit Frankrijk). For some inexplicable reason the book became a huge success, and one could say that 1917 was the real birth year of the Dutch crime novel.
Like many others Ivans borrowed the Holmes-Watson formula. His main character was an English private detective, called Geoffrey Gill, whose friend, the Dutch lawyer Willy Hendriks, acted as companion and narrator. Because of its success the publisher asked Ivans for a second novel. ‘The Ghost of Voroshegy’ (Het spook van Voroshegy) was published in the same year. It sold as well as its predecessor. The story was set in Hungary, a country Ivans had visited more than once. Most of his novels were set in some European country.
Ivans showed nearly unbridled energy: he wrote forty eight crime novels, mostly about G.G., though also half a dozen about May O’Neill, a female detective. In between he wrote serials for all kinds of magazines. Even though today he is not much more than a memory, he as a real pioneer, who made the point that Dutch crime fiction had a right of its own. Ivans’s success encouraged other writers to follow in his footsteps, but in most cases the result was mediocre if not worse. Many of the books lacked the necessary skill needed for a good crime story and were often written in a stuffy, even melodramatic way.
In the thirties things improved considerably. Between 1935 and 1938 Jan de Hartog (1915-2002) published five novels filled to the brim with uncut Amsterdam humor. Far more serious was Willy Corsari (Wilhelmina Angela Douwes-Schmidt; 1897-1998), who made her debut in 1927 with ‘The faultless Crime’ (De misdaad zonder fouten). She made a name for herself with ‘The Mystery of the Moonlight Sonata’ (Het mysterie van de Mondscheinsonate; 1934). Until 1983 Corsari wrote thirteen carefully plotted whodunits and thrillers, but she considered them only a sideline, her main field being the psychological novel.
In 1935 Ivans died suddenly and his Publishing House Bruna started scouting for a successor. Finally they opted for Hendrikus Franciskus van der Kallen (1904-1964), a beginning author they had first refused. On second thoughts Bruna decided to accept his manuscript, which proved to be a lucky hit. ‘The Mystery of St. Eustache’ (Het mysterie van St.Eustache; 1935), published under the pseudonym Havank, was an immediate success. In no time Havank obtained immense popularity. He set his stories for the greater part in France, a country he loved. The main character in all his books is Charles Carlier, nicknamed the Shadow, because of his ability to follow someone like a shadow. Soon his character was as famous as the Saint in England! With his fame the Charles Carlies rose through the ranks of the police force. He started as a sergeant, but in later books (Havank wrote thirty novels and collections of short stories until 1959) the Shadow was no less than Head of Interpol! Havank’s novels struck a completely new tone. In his prose there is othing to be found of the stuffiness so annoyingly present in many of the novels of his contemporaries. It is fresh, full of jokes and puns. Precarious situations are no exception. Sometimes it seems as if Havank rejected all that was inclined to the ordinary. Titles such as ‘Polka Mazurka’ (1939) and ‘The Widow in the Willows’ (De weduwe in de wilgen; 1950) reflect this. It made him inimitable and unique, whatever is said about him today.
After World War Two nothing much changed. Havank had spent the war in England and returned with a novel appropiately called ‘The Shadow is back’ (De Schaduw is terug; 1946). During the thirties nobody so much as glanced at the United States, where authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were introducing a very different kind of crime fiction. Dutch writers reveled in their own complacency. Understandably so, to a certain degree, because the Netherlands were a quiet country, not to be associated with gangs and gangsters. Nevertheless, sooner or later the hardboiled story would reach the Dutch shores.
In the first half of the fifties this moment arrived. Bruna, apparently not satisfied with the supply and quality of new manuscripts, organized a competition for original crime novels. ‘Pearls for Nadra’ (Parels voor Nadra; 1953), written by reporter Joop van den Broek (1926-1997), became the unexpected winner. The author had spent many years in Indonesia and used this country’s background for a really tough novel, full of sex and brutal violence. Critics were stunned, the conservative part of the Netherlands condemned the book and called it pernicious. It was all to no avail. The spell was broken and authors heaved a sigh of relief, though only a handful of them wrote novels of the same kind. Joop van den Broek himself turned into a prolific (25 novels) and versatile writer. He published more hardboiled novels as well as psychological thrillers and police procedurals. These books were published under the pseudonym Jan van Gent.
In spite of all this the overall situation hardly changed. Barriers had fallen, but it would take about a decade before consequences really became visible. In 1951 two elderly sisters from The Hague, using the pen-name Martin Mons, started a series of very traditional detective novels. It was all tidy and cozy, and their stories breathed the atmosphere of the not too exciting Dutch thirties. Nevertheless they went on unperturbedly and by 1964, the year in which both sisters died, they had published 31 books.
W.H. van Eemlandt (Willem Hendrik Haasse; 1888-1955) began a series of police procedural novels, starting in 1953. Aart van Houthem, head of the Amsterdam C.I.D., was the main characters in over a dozen books, which did bring a new genre, but were not very innovative in themselves> The author was a fierce defender of traditional values.
A real novelty were the stories of Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967) about the Chinese judge Dee (in Dutch ‘Tie’, pronounced tee). The author was a renowned sinologist and based his stories on a historical figure who lived in the 7th century A.D. Van Gulik illustrated the books himself with simple drawings in which women showed naked breasts, but never naked feet. In the Netherlands the series started with ‘Labyrinth in Lanfang’ and ended posthumously in 1969.
The fifties had been relatively uneventful. Tradition reigned, but now real changes were near. A new genre was introduced: espionage. In 1964 secret agent McGregor, a creation of Ted Viking (Jan Louwen 1924-2000) made his appearance in ‘McGregor and the dead Village’ (McGregor en het dode dorp). McGregor represented a new phenomenon, and as such is worth mentioning. Notwithstanding his adventures and narrow escapes he remained too respectable to be convincing.
In 1966 all readers who longed for real excitement were finally served. With ‘A poisoned Cup for a Metropolis’ (Gifbeker voor een wereldstad) journalist Henk Oolbekkink introduced a very different kind of secret agent. His name was Glotz, and he was as ruthless as they come. Consequently his adventures don’t lack sex, violence and strong language. Still, underneath it all there is a feeling that the reader shouldn’t take matters too seriously, and that the author is making fun of the sordid business of espionage. Oolbekkink wrote eight books about Glotz, and ten about Tim Spender, a fixer for hire by anyone who is willing to pay for his services. Spender’s sex and violence are much milder, because Spender is the archetype of the antihero.
More tough novels were published by Rinus Ferdinandusse (b. 1931). He called his books srillers, warning readers to expect an unorthodox sense of humor. His books, only five, are full of black humor and witty aphorisms, but offer a reflection of the times in the Netherlands. That was a real novelty in the genre. The Netherlands were no longer the quiet country they used to be and Ferdinandusse portrayed them with irony. His first novel, ‘Naked over the Fence’ (Naakt over the schutting; 1966), one of the provoking titles he used, deals with a pornographic conspiracy. His second, ‘That Night she wore a purple Corset’ (Ze droeg die nacht een paars korset; 1967) tells about a right wing intrigue concerning the marriage of Princess (now Queen) Beatrix. In the turbulent year 1968 Ferdinandusse published ‘The broad Back of the Dutch Maiden’, the Dutch Maiden being the national symbol, (De brede rug van de Nederlandse maagd), a diabolical satire about a possible coup d’état by a political party. One might say that Ferdinandusse anticipated a genre that later became known as faction, which underlines his special place in Dutch crime fiction.
Gerben Hellinga, sometimes using the pseudonym Hellinger (b. 1937), aimed at a more serious crime story in an elegant and reserved style, relying less on comedy than Oolbekkink and Ferdinandusse. Hellinga’s principal character Sid Stefan, is a non-conformist, who does odd jobs for a living. He likes money, women and tailor-made suits. Sid Stefan first appears in Hellinga’s debut ‘Dollars’ (1966), being the first part of a trilogy. Readers had to wait until 1989 before Sid Stefan appeared again in ‘Sid Stefan returns’ (De terugkeer van Sid Stefan), which won the Golden Noose, the most important crime fiction award in The Netherlands and Belgium.
Along with all this a new figure appeared: Jurjen de Cock, an elderly detective sergeant stationed in the inner city of Amsterdam, close to the Red Light District. His creator Albert Cornelis Baantjer (b. 1923) was at the time an active sergeant himself. His first book ‘De Cock and the Sunday Strangler’ (De Cock en de wurger op zondag; 1965) remained almost unnoticed, but after a few years things changed. Baantjer kept publishing and gradually gathered a wide circle of readers. From the eighties on his output was two books a year, and in 2003 his sixtieth book was published. By now he is by far the most popular Dutch author, with estimated sales of more than 6.000.000 copies! Baantjer’s formula is simplicity. His language is simple, the number of pages is never more than 140, the habits of his characters never change. In 2003 Baantjer was awarded a special prize for his merits for the Dutch crime novel.
In the meantime there were bad tidings. Ferdinandusse and Oolbekkink stopped in 1971. Successors were nowhere in sight. Until then an average of twenty novels were published each year, but in the beginning of the seventies this dropped dramatically. A crisis was on hand!
Two authors came to the rescue: Janwillem van de Wetering (b. 1931) and Jackie Lourens (b. 1920-2000). Van de Wetering had traveled the world. He was attracted to Zen Buddhism, spent some years in a Japanese monastery, and finally joined a Buddhist community in Maine (U.S.). In 1966 he returned to Amsterdam. There he wrote, in English, four police procedural novels, and had them published in the U.S. Soon afterwards he translated them, but Dutch publishers looked somewhat awkwardly at the far from ordinary inspector Henk Grijpstra and his side-kick sergeant Rinus de Gier. Yet they were published: ‘Outsider in Amsterdam’ (Het lijk in de Haarlemmer Houttuinen) in 1975, the other novels in the next years. Initially critics and readers reacted positively, but after later books the mood changed. During the eighties Van de Wetering was accused of incoherence as well as writing too many absurdities. In 1985 the author had enough and stopped. In the nineties he tried a comeback, but the critics were severe and the readers no longer interested. After ‘A small guy of forty’ (Een ventje van veertig; 1996) he stopped again. Van de Wetering was never fully understood, which is a pity, for he gave the Dutch crime novel a decisive push upward during those dreary seventies.
Jackie Lourens, a fifty five year old housewife and mother, also wrote police procedural novels, situated in a fictitious small town on the river Rhine. Her books, starting with ‘They cannot leave off’ (Ze kunnen het niet laten; 1975), are well plotted and straightforward. She wrote 24 books, the last of which was published in 1998. Her stories offer nothing spectacular, but with her steady production she undoubtedly helped the Dutch crime novel back on its feet.
Towards the end of the seventies things slowly improved. New and younger authors made their appearance and, better still, new genres were introduced. But there is always a snag. Young authors start well, write a few books and then, for one reason of the other, they quit. It had happened in the past, it will happen in the eighties.
One of the promising newcomers was Koos van Zomeren (b. 1946), who made his debut with the rather conventional novel ‘The murder of colleague Vink’ (Collega Vink vermoord; 1977). His next four novels showed increasingly political tendencies, which reached their peak in 1981. At the time there was a political row in the Netherlands. A cabinet minister had been accused of a faux pas during the war. Van Zomeren loosely based his next two novels on this incident. ‘The Hague Spring’ (Haagse lente) tells the story in general terms. In its sequel, called ‘Minister behind bars’ (Minister achter de tralies), the minister himself gives his opinion about events. It was an outstanding twin, but also Van Zomeren’s penultimate contribution. After one more novel he turned his attention to other things and never looked back.
Meanwhile 1980 proved to be a historical year. It marked the successful return of Joop van den Broek with ‘Homesick for Dutch India’ (Heimwee naar Indië) and the entry of four new authors, almost all in their thirties. Jestingly they were called the new wave, probably because they all published their first crime novel in the same year.
Theo Capel (b. 1944) created an employee of a credit bank, who acts as a kind of private eye. Capel had a dry, ironic style. His books have short, biting titles. ‘Spoiled Money’ (Weggegooid geld) was his debut, rapidly followed by six more books. In the nineties his tempo slowed down, but he keeps on writing. His latest, ‘Die fast’ (Sterf snel) dates from 2002.
Jacques Post (b. 1951) was clearly influenced by the American hardboiled school. Consequently his novels were tough and violent. They are set in Rotterdam and are about a criminal and his adversary, a detective sergeant. They make an odd couple. ‘Measure for measure’ (Leer om leer) was their first confrontation. Like Capel, Post was prolific in the eighties, but then lost interest. ‘Killroy’ (1991) was his latest.
Felix Thijssen (b. 1931), already known as writer of sf novels, was of the opinion that crime novels should tell about criminals, so he presented a small gang of three criminals on the run. In ‘Wildschut’, the name of a forester’s house, they take the inhabitants hostage. Later books feature only Charlie Mann, the leader of the gang. ‘Ultimate Test’ (Vuurproef; 1990) was the last of the series.
The fourth, Tomas Ross (Willem Hogendoorn; b. 1944), was predestined to become one of the most versatile and important Dutch crime writers. His first book ‘The ‘Dogs of the Betrayal’ (De honden van het verraad) tells about a coup against the Indonesian president Suharto. It was pure fiction, but soon thereafter Ross turned to faction. ‘The Betrayal of ’42’ (Het verraad van ’42; 1983) is about the England spiel; Greenpeace is the subject in ‘The Warriors of the Rainbow’ (De strijders van de regenboog; 1986); the catastrophic events around Srebenica are retold in ‘Courier for Sarajevo’ (Koerier voor Sarajevo; 1996). Past or present, Ross always succeeds in inventing a plot and solution of his own. In that field he is a real virtuoso. During the eighties the Dutch crime novel bloomed, and Ross founded The Dutch and Flemish Crime Writers Association (1986), as well as the annual award for best crime novel, called the ‘Golden Noose’ (de Gouden Strop), a tribute to Joop van den Broek, who wrote a book by that title in 1982.
In 1997 the Shadow prize was added for best first novel (a tribute to Havank). Ross himself won The Golden Noose three times, the last time in 2003 with ‘The sixth of May’ (De zesde mei; 2003), on that day in 2002 a Dutch politician was brutally murdered.
In 1985 Ina Bouman (b. 1936) was first in a sub genre related to the feminist movement. Between 1986 and 1997 she wrote four novels in which women, most of them lesbian, have the upper hand. A few female writers went along, but in the end it was an interesting, but short-lived development.
Another was a sudden nostalgia for the past, even as far back as the middle ages. Regrettably only some of those books were based on a Dutch historic subject, but Ashe Stil (b. 1953) stayed close to home. He chose the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) as his setting and launched a long series about an Amsterdam water-bailiff. From 1993 on this bailiff has now solved fourteen cases.
Even closer to our time are the novels of Martin Koomen (b. 1939). In ‘Import, Export, Manslaughter, Murder’ (Import, export, doodslag, moord; 1986) we meet Robert Portland, a Dutch secret agent. He operates during the years prior to the World War II. In ‘Portland, our man in The Hague’ (Portland, onze man in Den Haag; 2003) he accomplished his thirteenth assignment.
One of the most prolific and prominent authors is René Appel (b. 1945). He is a master of the psychological thriller, with a sophisticated style. His novels are full of suspense, fear and helplessness, and give the reader a continuous feeling of uneasiness. His debut was ‘Handicap’ (1987). His third book, accidentally or deliberately called ‘The third person’ (De derde persoon; 1990) earned Appel the Golden Noose. For ‘Pointless violence’ (Zinloos geweld; 2001) he was awarded a second time.
Jacob Vis (b. 1944) initially turned his attention to political affairs and faction; his first novel, ‘Prince Desi’ (Prins Desi; 1987) concerns the struggle for political power in Suriname. He now writes tough crime novels, set in the small town Ijsselmonde, a quiet place, but murder, blackmail, drugs, prostitution and other crimes keep the police busy. Vis confronts his readers with the unpleasant reality of contemporary society, and does so very convincingly.
A very different kind of author is Chris Rippen (b. 1940). In his books tension slowly builds up until the inevitable outcome. ‘Playback’ (1991) his second novel, won the Golden Noose. Rippen distinguishes himself with meticulous prose. So far he has written five novels and a collection of shorts, this in contrast to Appel and Vis, who have an average of a book every year.
Peter de Zwaan (b. 1944) re-introduced the hardboiled novel. ‘Dietz’ (1992) is about a small time criminal in an anonymous, dangerous city, where his main aim is survival. His books provide real entertainment, full of action and hilarious dialogue. For ‘The Alibi Bureau’ (Het alibibureau; 2000) he received the Golden Noose.
Another author to present himself in the nineties is Jac. Toes (b. 1950). His books deal with al kinds of excesses, mostly gathered from real facts. His first novel ‘Double Track’ (Dubbelspoor; 1993) takes the reader back to the eighties and the activist movement. ‘Photo finish’ (Fotofinish; 1998) is a fascinating and disturbing story about a cross-country runner, who runs head on into an ugly trap. The Golden Noose was its well deserved reward.
Charles den Tex (b. 1953) concentrates on all sorts of swindles in the industrial world. His debut ‘Dump’ (1995) was about the illegal dumping of chemical waste, ‘Claim’ (1996) turned on the insurance claim for a ship that went down. For ‘Chance in hell’ (Schijn van kans; 2002), about a dangerous deal between two cable production companies with all its unsavory details, he was awarded the Golden Noose.
In the last years of the twentieth century there were two pleasant surprises. The female author Gerry Sajet (b. 1933) published ‘Clean Sweep’ (Schoon schip; 1999), a crime novel in which once more the question suicide or murder has to be answered. It earned her the Shadow prize, and since then she has published three more crime novels.
Last but not least there was the unexpected comeback of Felix Thijssen, who started a series about a private eye, called Max Winter. In all these highly entertaining books a woman is in some sort of distress or worse. ‘Cleopatra’ (1998), ‘Isabelle’ (1999), ‘Tiffany’ (2000) are the first of so far seven novels. ‘Cleopatra’ was awarded the Golden Noose!
Without exaggeration it can be said that the Dutch crime novel is flourishing. To promote it, June is proclaimed ‘Month of the thriller’. During that month everyone who buys a book receives a present in the form of a novelette. It stimulates reading and that in turn stimulates authors to go on writing.
Jan C. Roosendaal, an expert on Dutch crime literature, published a.o. ‘Moorden met woorden’ (Murder with words; 2000), a comprehensive history and bibliography of Dutch crime fiction in the twentieth century.