Waiting for a Pioneer
16 May 2006
A writer’s success can, to a certain degree, be determined by his sales figures. By this token, Saskia Noort stands head and shoulders above the rest. Of her three books that have been published so far, more than 750,000 have been sold, which means that there is a Saskia Noort book in almost one in every ten houses in The Netherlands. It is the tip of the iceberg. Behind her, authors are lined up: old hands, beginners, young women, middle-aged men. Together they produce about fifty thrillers a year, all with one thing in common: they are sparsely translated and therefore unknown abroad, unknown and therefore unpopular.
When it comes to The Netherlands foreigners know all about coffee shops, windmills, and dikes, but that’s it. ‘The Dutch have heard of New York and Washington. They see them on television, they read about them in the newspaper. But Americans know nothing about Holland. And even if they have heard about Amsterdam, then they still never see anything of it on television. That is why the Dutch are behind in America and why we are ahead in Europe,’ concluded the American bestselling author James Patterson when he visited The Netherlands.
But the Dutch thriller is versatile and has everything it takes to make an international breakthrough. The genre has grown tremendously over the past decades, and goes beyond mere sales figures. Since 1986 there has been an award for the best Dutch thriller of the year: the ‘Gouden Strop’, or Golden Noose.
The Dutch thriller is booming. An increasing number of talented authors are choosing to write thrillers, in part lured by the success of foreign authors, but definitely also encouraged by the blossoming of the genre in The Netherlands, where it is taking on a shape of its own.
The Dutch thriller has matured and deepened at several levels: linear plots have made way for well thought-out, sophisticated storylines, there is more attention to style, and several sub-genres have emerged.
Of these, the most important is the rapid rise of the ‘female thriller’ in recent years. Simone van der Vlugt, Saskia Noort and Esther Verhoef have shown with their tremendous sales that a new market has been tapped. They have succeeded by combining descriptions of everyday reality with a fluent, readable style. It is a success that appeals to the imagination and encourages imitation, an increasing number of young women are getting down to write thrillers and the publishers await the finished manuscripts with open arms.
Thriller writers no longer feel limited to the traditional boundaries of the genre. The term ‘literary thriller’ has become popular. The simple plot has made way for deeper character development, strong dialogue and conscious attention to style. Authors are constantly testing the limits of the thriller. Just as Nicci French and Karin Slaughter stand out above the regular thriller authors, Dutch authors such as Charles den Tex, Chris Rippen, and Felix Thijssen distinguish themselves by their attention to their protagonists’ psychology, personal relationships and interactions. You don’t put books by these authors down until you’ve turned the last page. They make you think, as a good literary novel should.
The existence of sub-genres is characteristic of the maturity of the Dutch thriller, with authors specialising within the general boundaries of crime and suspense. Some, such as Roel Janssen and Charles den Tex, focus on the business world, others on the latest news, such as Tomas Ross, who mixes fact and fiction in such a way that the reader no longer knows where reality ends and the author’s imagination begins. Is the foiled attempt on the former female politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s life reality or fantasy? Did the perpetrators really get as close as Tomas Ross describes? Such questions are what makes Ross’s faction so attractive and successful. And then there is the loner Elvin Post, who stands out because of the humour in his books, not the hilarity of Carl Hiaasen, more the subtle humour of Elmore Leonard and Harlan Coben.
But of course there are also writers who have stayed true to the original form of the detective novel. Simon de Waal and Peter de Zwaan are good examples, as well as former cabinet minister Jan Terlouw, who, with his daughter Sanne, has written a good, old-fashioned whodunnit.
In general the Dutch thriller stays away from extreme violence or sex. If literature is a mirror for the society in which it develops, then thrillers reflect the fringes of that society - the dark side with its drugs, murder, theft, deceit, blackmail and kidnapping. In this mirror The Netherlands still looks like a tolerant country where much is possible and permitted. The political wind may have chilled in recent years, but the basis is and will always be a country of tolerance, a country where the police don’t immediately start bludgeoning, let alone shooting, when there’s a problem, a country where excesses in prisons don’t exist to the extent that we know from other countries, and where serial killers are an unknown phenomenon. Nor are authors particularly interested in ghettos; such neighbourhoods are not nearly as scary as in France or Britain, let alone America. So there is a certain reservation on the part of Dutch authors about hardcore violence and sex. Young female authors such as Saskia Noort and Esther Verhoef are, it is true, breaking through those barriers, but so far they are the exceptions.
In general, the important ingredient in the Dutch thriller is still the human dimension, the relationships between people and the effects of unusual circumstances on those relationships. In Dutch books style and content are what matters, and the blood splatters seldom reach the ceiling.
A large international breakthrough is imminent. Foreign publishers and readers may not know The Netherlands very well, but then again, what do they know of Sweden? Still, Sweden has Henning Mankell, who has put the Scandinavian thriller on the map. The Dutch are still waiting for such a pioneer. Nicci Gerrard of the English author couple Nicci French recently said, ‘Only one author needs to break through for the Dutch thriller world to become interesting for English publishers. Hopefully for Dutch authors this moment is not too far off.’
In this brochure we present seven candidates: Charles den Tex, Willem Asman, Tomas Ross, Felix Thijssen, Elvin Post, Johanna Spaey and René Appel.
‘Only one author needs to break through for the Dutch thriller world to become interesting for English publishers. Hopefully for Dutch authors this moment is not too far off.’