"All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together."- Hercule Poirot (The Murder on the Orient-Express, 1934)
In a fairly recent blog post, I recounted my astonishing discovery of a caved-in well of mostly unremembered, Dutch-language detective stories and the exasperation I felt at being unable to unearth any substantive information regarding their content. There's more than enough biographical material of their authors scattered over the internet, but in most cases it's difficult to even discern whether they wrote conventional whodunits, hardboiled thrillers, tales of suspense or police procedurals. This left me with insufficient data to cherry-pick from the best titles available and made me fully dependable on my gut feeling when picking a book.
This purely random, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, method is not the technique I prefer to decide on my next book purchase, but there's something to be said for the element of surprise that comes with it – and Ben van Eysselsteijn's Romance in F-Dur (19??), in which a world-renowned soloist comes to a sticky end at an apartment building that mainly acts as a halfway house for an international assembly of guests, was more than worth the handful of loose change that I gambled on it.
But before discussing the plot, I have to address the mystery surrounding the publication date. Every online-source I have checked states that the first edition of Romance in F-Dur started rolling from the presses in the year 1934, but events and references incontrovertibly places the story after World War II. At first, I thought the publisher of the edition I read, a reprint from the early 1960s, had "updated" the text by throwing a few allusions to the post-WWII era around – but as the story moved forward that became highly unlikely as it would've been a thorough rewrite that served absolutely no purpose. This inadequate information goes to show how apathetic people around these parts are when the focus is moved from the crime littérateur to their actual work. Yeah, I know, it's a minor quibble, but I always note the initial date of publication to show where a book fits in within the canon of the genre, and it needles that I'm unable to do that with this novel.
Now, let's take a closer look at the story! Romance in F-Dur is set, for the most part, at Zeewijck, an apartment building situated somewhere in Den Haag (a.k.a. The Hague), that provides a temporary dwelling to mainly international guests, who are averse to the impersonal drabness of a hotel room and don't want to run up an enormous bill at an expensive boarding house, and the occupants who took up their resident at the opening of the story include an Indian prince, a former general of the German army, a Dutch-Indo and a Belgium-French couple – and several other ill-assorted gargoyles who could've been plucked from Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient-Express (1934) or Death on the Nile (1937).
|Floor plan of "Zeewijck"|
We bump into the key figure in this dramatic play, the prodigal musician Eric Purcell, when he's on his way back from a concert to his rooms and he's being accompanied by Thérèse Dubois, the actress wife of one of his fellow apartment dwellers, and they leave very little to the imagination as to what they've planned for the night ahead of them. But when the impetuous violinist withdraws for a moment to shed his tuxedo for something more comfortable her husband, the cynical actor Vincent Dubois, unexpectedly turns up – subsequently ruining a perfectly thrilling and exciting evening for the two. The inevitable confrontation between husband and lover, however, doesn't happen as Eric Purcell fails to emerge from his room and when Thérèse goes to check up on him she discovers his prostrate body slumped over the bed next to his broken violin: the cloaked man with the scythe had lulled him to sleep to the tune of a whizzing bullet.
The commissioner of the local precinct puts inspector Evers, who is of British descent, in charge of this international affair and they receive unexpected assistance from one of Scotland Yard's most celebrated detectives – who was here on a special assignment to fasten the irons around the slain fiddler's wrists who are now reserved for his murderer. The ensuing investigation is an enjoyable busy one as they interrogate the odd assortment of tenants, constantly uncover new clues and rig-up strategic traps for the murderer. Van Eysselsteijn evidently had a lot of fun writing this story and he knew his classics.
I alluded earlier to the similarity between the cast of characters from this book and those from two of Agatha Christie's most celebrated whodunits, but the entire story is littered with clues and hints that Van Eysselsteijn was intimately known with her body of work and tried emulating her – only he lacked her finesse when it come to clueing and providing a rug-puller of a solution. The book reads like a masculine Agatha Christie, but the plotting technique is much more reminiscent of Rex Stout. I couldn't help but rolling my eyes at that little, but palpable, slip-up the murderer made towards the end of the book – although the reader has been set-up in advance to be on the look-out for just such a mistake. So I guess you have to give him props on that point.
However, one thing he could do as well as the Queen of Crime was planting his tongue firmly into his cheek! He forces the man from Scotland Yard to shamefully mutter mea culpa's for bringing up a hackneyed plot device such as a fabulous stolen jewel, stating that detective writers only use these sparklers to obscure the dullness of their own imagination, and he eats a bullet when he discovers, by pure happenstance, the identity of the murderer and wants to announce it to the world – leaving Evers to unmask the murderer by pure reasoning. Well, what can you say about that, except producing a hearty grin.
All in all, this book was an amusing read and a pleasant surprise that I hope to find more of as I probe deeper into this area of the mystery genre, and I will keep you posted on the developments I make.
|Ben van Eysselsteijn (1898-1973)|
Van Eysselsteijn was a literary jack-of-all-trades, who was a poet, novelist, reviewer and an all-around intellectual, whose oeuvre includes four detective stories:
Het raadsel van de dertienden december (The Riddle of December 13, 1926)
Het Chineesche mysterie (The Chinese Mystery, 1932; co-written with Jan Campert)
Romance in F-Dur (Romance in F-Dur, 19??)
De dubbelganger (The Double, 1944; a stage play)
Foreign mysteries discussed on this blog spot:
The Trampled Peony (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
Death in Dream Time (S.H. Courtier, 1959)
Murder During the Final Exams (Tjalling Dix, 1957)
Elvire Climbs the Tower (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, 1956)
The Black-Box Murder (Maarten Maartens, 1898)
Murder in a Darkened Room (Martin Méroy, 1965)
The Sins of Father Knox (Josef Skvorecky, 1973)
Case Closed, volume 38: On the Ropes (review of Case Closed)
The Melody of Logic Must Be Played Truthfully (discussing Spiral: The Bonds or Reasoning)
Kindaichi: The Good, The Bad and The Average (dicussing The Kindaichi Case Files)
Amnesia Labyrinth, vol 1 (review)