3/24/12

Quadruple Quandary

"My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Red-Headed League").
Theo Joekes
Theo Joekes (1923-1999) was a Dutch journalist, (mystery) writer and politician, who's remembered, if remembered at all, for his tenure as a member of parliament – where he took his seat on June 5, 1963 and left in 1989 after withdrawing his name from the list of candidates of his party (VVD).

Joekes departure from the political scene was the result of an internal skirmish that stemmed from a report of a committee of inquiry, of which he was the vice-chairman, that looked into a shipyard that received financial aid from the government before going under and found that one of Joekes' fellow party members had lied to parliament. Apparently, there was some pressure to revise their report, but Joekes stood firm and as a punishment for his "betrayal" he was delegated to an ineligible place on the party list during the next elections. This was, however, not enough to shut this parliamentarian up and began to campaign on his own and clung to his seat for another term after garnering 285.000 preference votes – which was also good for four additional seats for his party. But don't think this was appreciated. During the next elections, his name was again assigned to an ineligible place and this lead him to the conclusion that he had arrived at the last chapter of his political career.

Lies, intrigue and death bureaucratic bullying in the political sphere of the Low Lands! Well, it must have tickled the fancy of a man who was an out-of-the-closet Anglophile with a mind that was regular fed detective stories and that he knew his classics was demonstrated in the story opening the collection under review today, Klavertje moord (Four-Leaf Murder, 1986), when an examination of the victims book closet revealed hundreds of detective novels – from Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers

In 1980, Joekes published his first mystery novel, entitled Moord in de ridderzaal (Murder in the Knight's Hall), in which homicide detective Con Hendrix and Clerk of the House of Representatives Elizabeth Brederode are introduced – and the latter happens to have a relationship with the former and seems to be around whenever her partner is bending over a body at a crime-scene. This is somewhat justified by giving the cases a political background, angle or ties. Making her meddling more acceptable. And yes. This also forces me to revise my conclusion that the Dutch whodunit was bare of any amateur sleuths.

Unfortunately, this semi-professional snooping couple is treated with Dutch soberness instead of the contagious buoyancy of Kelley Roos and Delano Ames, but then again, this was his last book and I have the sneaking suspicion that the short story simply was not his forte. Klavertje moord contains three shorts and one novella and the latter was definitely the best of this bunch. The descriptions of his full-length novels also sound far more interesting and appear to be seeping at the spines with imagination. His first novel, for example, takes place in the titular Knight's Hall where several MPs are crushed under a falling chandelier during the troonrede (Queen's Speech = a State of the Union with a monarch instead of a president) and that's just to warm up the plot.

Joekes' full-length mysteries will definitely be the subject for discussion in the months ahead of us, but, for now, lets take a look at the four stories that make up Klavertje moord and because there are only a handful of them, I will discuss them from best-to-worst.

De moord in het Nonnen-Gasthuis (Murder in the Nuns-Guesthouse)

In the last and longest story of this collection, Hendrix and Brederode are confronted with a suspicious death at the Nuns-Guesthouse Hospital where a young man, named Paul Bradshaw, was found in the corridor to his room – collapsed in a dead faint after overstraining himself and having pulled out a life supplying infusion (drip). Bradshaw was dating the daughter of a well-known politician, Karen Valkenier, who is surrounded with scandalous whispers of a consensual incestuous relationship with her father, Sander Valkenier. This makes it a ticklish situation and the resolution does nothing to turn the grim shadow that hang over this case into a fleeting penumbra. It's a really dark and modern crime story, but the solution has some classical trimmings that can be compared to some of Bill Pronzini's fresh approaches to the detective story (e.g. Nightcrawlers, 2005 & Savages, 2007).

Brutus in bad (Brutus in Bath)

A phone-call summons Hendrix and Brederode from their familiar setting, The Hague, to the capital, Amsterdam, where Hans van der Meer, a celebrated Shakespearean actor, decided that his bathroom was as good a place as any to shoot himself through the roof of his mouth – or so a first glance would like you to belief. Hendrix goes over the apartment and what he finds (and doesn't find) helps him to point out a murderer before calling in his (local) colleagues. Admittedly, Hendrix relied a lot on guesswork and luck, but it made for a nice and interesting story. And it was Van der Meer's book closet that was stuffed with detective novels!

Moord in de Hofvijver (Murder in the Court Pond)

A colliding mass of protesters, compiled from members of the left and right fringes of the political spectrum, provided someone with a cover needed to throw a grenade into the Trèveszaal (the Room of Treaties) and in one deafening explosion years of painstaking and expensive restorations were nullified. It's a case that should require the full attention of Hendrix and Brederode, but there’s also the matter of a dead woman in the Court Pond and the missing landlord of an Italian ice-cream sales man. Is there a connection? Joekes came up with a potentially interesting premise, blending a formal mystery with thriller elements, but came up short on both ends of that stick.

Het raadsel van Vlucht WI 641 (The Riddle of Flight WI 641)

The powers above insert Hendrix and Brederode into a sensitive hi-jacking case of a plane with a delegation of diplomats onboard, but when the plane arrives and the ransom money is dropped off they find a mortally injured pilot and a baffled cargo of passengers who were unaware of their statuses as hostages – and the mysterious hijackers seems to have literarily disappeared into thin air. Joekes, once again, sketches an interesting premise without much of a pay-off.

Overall, this was the usual mixed bag of tricks you come to expect from these collections. Some good, some bad. But on a whole, I was not overly impressed, however, I will suspend my final judgment until I have worked my way through one or two of his novels. I really want to see what he was capable of when given enough room to unravel his plots.

On a final (somewhat related) note, there’s a wooden bench in London's Hyde Park that has the following epitaph engraved in its back: "in loving memory of Theo Joekes, 1923-1999." Just thought that was interesting to note. Well, I guess this was one of those rare instances, on this blog, when the author was of more interest than the stories under review.

This is the third book reviewed for the 2012 Vintage Mystery Challenge: Dutch Delinquencies:

My VMC2012 list: 

Een lampion voor een blinde (A Lantern for the Blind, 1973) by Bertus Aafjes
De moord op Anna Bentveld (The Murder of Anna Bentveld, 1967) by Appie Baantjer
De onbekende medespeler (The Unknown Player, 1931) by Willy Corsari
Voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937) by Willy Corsari
Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935) by F.R. Eckmar
Spoken te koop (Spooks for Sale, 1936) by F.R. Eckmar
Dood in schemer (Death at Twilight, 1954) by W.H. van Eemlandt
Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959) by Robert van Gulik
Het mysterie van St. Eustache (The Mystery of St. Eustache, 1935) by Havank
Klavertje moord (Four-Leaf Murder, 1986) by Theo Joekes
Het geheim van de tempelruïne (The Secret of the Temple Ruins, 1946) by Boekan Saja

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