4/8/12

When September Ends

"War doesn't mature men; it merely pickles them in the brine of disgust and dread."
- Nero Wolfe (Over My Dead Body, 1940). 
Jan de Hartog (1914-2002) was a Dutch novelist remembered on his native soil for the 1940 novel Hollands Glorie (Dutch Glory; translated in English under the title Captain Jan), which was often demonstratively put down on checkout counters or displayed in shop windows as a protest to the German occupation, but also attracted international acclaim with novels such as The Captain (1967) and The Peaceable Kingdom: An American Saga (1972) – one of 'em enabled him to chalk up a nomination for the Nobel Prize to his name.

What's a little-less known, is that De Hartog began his ascendance as a man of letters with a series of detective stories, published in the 1930s, under the penname "F.R. Eckmar" – which sounds as "verrek maar." This play-on-words, literarily meaning "drop dead," was directed at the publishers who had rejected his previous manuscripts. But when success and a respectable reputation began dogging his footsteps, he distanced himself from these early endeavors: labeling them as a youthful lapse of judgment and expressing relief that his global audience was never exposed to them.

Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935) introduces the reader to the trinity of Commissioner Wiebe Poesiat, Inspector Gregor Boyarski and Yvonne Delpêche – a combination almost as combustible as the triad of protagonists trudging around in the mysteries dreamed up by Craig Rice. Admittedly, it's not as surrealistic or humorous as some of the more memorable efforts from the Queen of Screwball Mysteries, but the crimes are peculiar, to say the least, and the (sometimes dark) comedic patches were, at times, genuinely funny. At one point in the story, Poesiat wants to arrest Yvonne as an accomplish and turns his back to her for dramatic effect, but when his theatrical pause begins to drag on he turns around – only to find himself alone in the room with front door locked from the outside! I can definitely imagine Helene pulling a stunt like that on an unsuspecting homicide detective.

But what's this book about? And why would anyone be looking for a left leg?

This narrative opens on a rapidly darkening evening, gravid with the threat of piercing wind and lashing rain, when we find Inspector Boyarski and Brigadier Stuntvoet at the end of a game of chess – when a phone call summons the inspector to the heart of Amsterdam for a murder at the concert hall. Officially, the inspector is attached to the Harbor Police, but after sinking a gang of dope peddlers his superiors often consult him on Big City cases. But getting to the scene of the crime turns out to be as much a trial as figuring out the problems thrown at him.

On his first attempt at doing his job, the inspector boarded a taxicab only to be confronted with an unresponsive driver, but then again, you can hardly expect an animated conversation from a man who was shot moments before flopping down on the backseat of his car. Back to square one, except that Brigadier Stuntvoet is not there to take this second murder off his hands. The brigadier has disappeared and everything points to an unfortunate drowning. His second attempt was delayed when Yvonne slammed her car into his cab. Oh, and we're 10 pages into a 187 page book at this point!  

After having finally joined Commissioner Poesiat, they begin to examine the death of Jan van den Speyaert, a hapless writer, who was shot through the head after the intermission and the only thing they have to go on is an extra bullet and a crumpled newspaper with the titular ad asking for a left leg. 

These opening chapters show a lot of imagination and their explanation were, for the most part anyway, reasonable (sometimes even cleverly) explained away, but their effect were diluted when the book began to morph into a pulpy spy-thriller after the murdered cab driver was exposed as a secret service agent whose assignment consisted of locating an undercover factory – producing new kind of poisonous gas. 

One of the suspects is poisoned while locked up in prison and with his dying breath identifies his murderer as the brain behind this new weapon,“Dokter September.” The hunt for this James Bondesque-villain turns Amsterdam into a battleground: Boyarski is kidnapped and the police have to smoke a dangerous gunman from the belly of a ship.

All in all, this was an amusing, but unchallenging, read that left me wondering how this book would have turned out if the story were told in a more straightforward manner – without the trappings of spy and thriller stories. It really watered down the detective-elements and left precious little to figure out once the search for the chemical factory and Dokter September commenced. Nevertheless, it was De Hartog’s first steps in this particular field of fiction and I always try to be lenient when judging a first stab at penning a detective story. This was neither a perfect detective story nor a very original thriller, but there were enough clever ideas planted in the first half to make me curious to see what else he did with the genre and feel tempted to pick up his second book straight away, but we’ll see what I take from the shelves when I put this one back up there. 

F.R. Eckmar bibliography:

Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935)
Spoken te koop (Spooks for Sale, 1936)
Ratten op de trap (Rats on the Stairs, 1937)
Drie dode dwergen (Three Dead Dwarfs, 1937)
De maagd en de moordenaar (The Virgin and the Killer, 1938)

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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