Crime literature in the Low Countries - This is what we fear
28 June 2016
Over the past two decades, crime literature in the Low Countries has come of age. Established crime authors are attracting a large readership with their often down-to-earth, realistic crime stories. Renowned literary authors are no longer averse to suspense and are delivering exciting novels that are both successful and popular. Talented new writers are announcing themselves with idiosyncratic, well-written thrillers.
The addition of the word ‘literary’ to ‘thriller’ no longer seems necessary as a way of helping to market a book, although it did have its value. It ensured that writers of crime stories who focused on style and content were able to attract the attention of the serious reader. Such readers previously turned up their noses at domestically produced thrillers – even while they devoured books by Simenon and by Sjöwall & Wahlöö. Dutch and Flemish readers have broadened their outlook and are now as comfortable reading Esther Verhoef as they are reading Arnon Grunberg.
The world of the Dutch-language thriller is dominated by female authors, who have gained a broad following with dark, realistic ‘what if?’ stories.
Often their books show us a different reality. They paint a picture of life in affluent villages but also in new housing estates. Despite their social disparity, adversity and danger lurk in both types of environment, and death comes unexpectedly. A sober tone and a focus on the everyday are important characteristics of the thriller from the Low Countries, and essential to the building of tension.
In What Remains Lieneke Dijkzeul examines the problem you’ll face if you murder someone who is much bigger and heavier than you are: how to move the body. In Close to the Cradle by Esther Verhoef, a nurse infiltrates the family life of a newly married couple who are oblivious to her evil plans. There is more than a hint here of subtle criticism of our society, in which children seem to be a burden to parents who are all too happy to be able to hand over responsibility for their offspring for a while. The failing instincts of parents are also addressed in Different by Anita Terpstra. Joy at the return of her lost son blinds a mother to the fact that the boy is different. Terpstra skilfully sets us on the wrong track time and again.
Pass On by Marion Pauw is another sober but pitch-black thriller. Entrepreneur Ron Casper is spending his fortune on an endless succession of visits to brothels – very much against the wishes of his children, who can only grumble as they see their inheritance threatened.
Female thriller authors are less prominent in Flanders. Young-adult author Hilde Vandermeeren is trying to change that. With her third thriller, Silent Ground, published in late May 2015, she was shortlisted for the Gouden Strop. The book describes Eve’s search for her sister, one of twins, who disappeared without trace thirty years ago at the age of six. Vandermeeren’s short story ‘The Lighthouse’ was published in the renowned American periodical Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
One of the first literary authors to make a truly successful foray into the area where crime and literature meet was Tim Krabbé, with The Cave and The Vanishing. He objected to having a sticker reading ‘thriller’ on his books, but in recent years the genre has come to be seen in a different light by established literary authors.
A.F.Th. van der Heijden was more than happy to add a crime novel Dead Still to his famous cycle The Toothless Time. In it he constructs a strong plot around the practices of Gesù Porporà, trafficker in children, who uses central character Albert Egbers as his courier. Drug addict Egbers is in it for the money, taking children across Europe to deliver them to their adoptive parents.
Quartet by Anna Enquist also complies with the demands of the thriller genre. In this novel, recently published in translation in Germany and France and enthusiastically received, she reveals the fragility of the civilized world in which the members of a string quartet live. The fact that danger can lurk nearby, and the best of intentions may bring disaster, is demonstrated wonderfully in her book.
In Geronimo Leon de Winter, an established literary author with a much translated oeuvre, poses the question of whether Osama Bin Laden really did die during his arrest by US Navy SEALs. What if a double was killed and the evil genius is still alive? His pageturner is on a par with the work of Tom Clancy or Frederic Forsyth.
Young literary authors no longer shun the genre either. The brothers Daan and Thomas Heerma van Voss have a Twin-Peaks-style thriller debut to their names in their jointly written Ultimatum.
The gloomy, gothic atmosphere created by Bertram Koeleman in his debut novel Friend of the House is a long way from the stories of villains operating close to the central heating that we come upon in many Dutch-language thrillers. Jonas Baham is commissioned by the immensely rich, reclusive Benjamin Krendler to hire scientists and artists to give his boss someone to talk to. Fineman, however, the last in a series of friends of the house, proves too inquisitive.
In Flanders the path from literature to the thriller genre was smoothed by Jef Geeraerts. The Alzheimer’s Case, of which the title refers to the disease creeping up on a hired killer, and Dossier K, a thriller about the Albanian mafia and blood feuds, are two of his most famous crime books. Poet, novelist, film director and artist Patrick Conrad opts for the roman noir. In Tango Assassino, Walker and Moço a sombre atmosphere prevails, full of melancholy and alienation. Against a background of decadence, the central character wages a hopeless battle. Bob Van Laerhoven has also made a successful transition into the crime genre. As well as historical thrillers like The Shadow of the Mole (2014), in recent years he has published Alejandro’s Lie (2013) and Black Water (2011). Social engagement is the common element in his work: shell shock during the First World War, South American dictatorship and Islamic fundamentalism.
Alongside the everyday, socially realistic thrillers and the more literary approach of established names, there is no shortage of authors who concentrate on dark conspiracies, whodunnits and spy novels.
In his second novel Drone, Bart-Jan Kazemier addresses the deployment of unmanned weapons. Secret services and governments turn out to have a deadly iron grip on events surrounding a failed mission in which such a weapon is used. In this breathtakingly exciting novel, everything turns on an encrypted hard disc. Will the ex-commandos succeed in deciphering the information and making it public, or will the scandal be covered up for ever? The cracking of a code is also central to Donald Nolet’s Encrypted. In this prize-winning thriller an IT specialist immerses himself in the history of Pearl Harbor, coming up against powerful opponents.
Both Nolet and Kazemier were coached by Thomas Ross – doyen of the genre – who has done a great deal to help talented crime authors in his role as editor-at-large of an imprint of Cargo books named after him. Ross himself is forging ahead with Death’s-Head Butterfly, co-authored with Corine Hartman. The German translation rights were recently sold to Piper in Munich.
The almost paranoid atmosphere in which lone individuals face powerful opponents is familiar from the series of thrillers written by Charles den Tex since his debut with Dump. Each of his well-written, meticulously structured books exposes the dangers inherent in today’s technology-dominated society. Cell is about identity theft and The Power of Mr. Miller about a secret backdoor in software. Both have been successfully filmed. Den Tex is firmly up to date with developments in the information society; his latest book, Bot, is about obscure networks and who controls them.
In Just Prove It, Rudy Soetewey describes the shadowy world of the food industry, which is cutthroat in every sense when its profits are threatened. In the prize-winning 2017 the author presents a gloomy view of the future of Flemish society, with its welfare state in decline.
Medical abuses are the focus of crime fiction by Gauke Andriesse and Jo Claes. In The Hands of Kalman Teller, detective Jager Havix is hired to find out what happened during unsuccessful surgery on the former assistant to the mysterious Teller. With this thriller their series featuring private detective Havix reaches its highpoint.
In the most recent part of his Thomas Berg series, Jo Claes has his hero Berg investigate the suicide of the boss of a laboratory where a discovery has just been made that could dramatically slow the aging process. Alongside Claes, Toni Coppers, with his series featuring police chief Lise Meerhout, has gained a permanent place in the Flemish thriller landscape. The female central character and the credible storylines, focusing on societal problems such as child abuse, drug-taking and prostitution, are key to the series’ success. It has been adapted for television as the successful series Coppers. It was Pieter Aspe who paved the way for both Claes and Coppers. With his crime novels centred on Chief Inspector Pieter Van In, he is by far the best-selling Flemish fiction author: in Flanders some 2.5 million books have been sold. The successful TV police series Aspe, based on his books, has increased the effect even further. His work has appeared in many languages, including German (Fischer, 2005-2008). Five thrillers by Luc Deflo, most of which feature Inspector Luc Deleu in the main role, have also appeared in German, published by Droemer Knaur Verlag.
Plenty of talent
Jan Willem van de Wetering and Robert van Gulik – the old masters of crime – have found followers in writers like Den Tex, Verhoef and Dijkzeul, who regularly publish well-written thrillers that have found a large readership. The future of the Dutch-language thriller is looking bright. Out of the literary realm surprising variations on the genre have appeared, and a striking amount of talent is presenting itself.
To close, a couple of writers to keep an eye on. As well as Nolet, Kazemier and Koeleman, they include Bram Dehouck and Walter Lucius. Dehouck’s first two thrillers, The Affable Murderer and A Summer Without Sleep were both awarded the Gouden Strop. The Hartman trilogy by Walter Lucius can count on much interest from abroad. Translations of the first part, The Butterfly and the Storm, have been published or are being prepared in Danish, German, French, Spanish and Italian. A special mention is due to Bavo Dhooge. The authoritative thriller guide published by Vrij Nederland has given his books four or in some cases even the maximum of five stars. Dhooge combines humour and suspense, a difficult balancing act that he pulls off wonderfully. In Stiletto Libretto, Sioux Blues and Scam Alarm he opts for an American setting and lets his plainly whacky characters loose on a world that is both insane and credible.
* with thanks to Geert Swaenepoel
The most important prizes that can be awarded to good crime novels are the Gouden Strop (Golden Noose, the Netherlands) and the Diamanten Kogel (Diamond Bullet, Flanders). They are awarded to books that are both suspenseful and well written.
Winners of the Gouden Strop
- 2016: Esther Verhoef – Lieve mama (Dear Mama)
- 2015: Jo Claes – De mythe van Methusalem (The Myth of Methuselah)
- 2014: Donald Nolet – Versleuteld (Encrypted)
- 2013: Michel van Bergen Henegouwen – Nacht in Parijs (Night in Paris)
- 2012: Bram Dehouck – Een zomer zonder slaap (A Summer Without Sleep)
- 2011: Gauke Andriesse – De handen van Kalman Teller (The Hands of Kalman Teller)
Winners of the Diamanten Kogel
- 2015: Nausicaa Marbe – Smeergeld (Slush Money)
- 2014: Jacob Vis – De Zwarte Duivel (The Black Devil)
- 2013 : Rudy Soetewey – 2017
- 2012: Almar Otten – Blauw goud (Blue Gold)
- 2011: Elvin Post – Roomservice (Room Service)