The Key Problem

"Death hath so many doors to let out life."
- Beaumont-Fletcher.
Cor Docter (1925-2006) was a Dutch pulp writer whose books, under such bylines as "Francis Hobard" and "Salem Pinto," were in high-demand throughout the 1950-and 60s and became one of the household names that kept neighborhood bookshops and district libraries in business. He also penned an authoritative work entitled Grossiers in moord en doodslag: veelschrijvers uit Nederland en Vlaanderen (Wholesalers in Homicide: Writers from Holland and Flanders, 1997) and published three, classically-styled, detective novels under his own name and these were rocketed to the top of my wish list after stumbling across information that put them in the same category as Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr – which is no exaggeration as I have just finished reading Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970).

I have to start of by saying that Cor Docter struck me as a very knowledgeable man, who both loved and respected his craft. The introduction, of a single page, is a testament to this and has a very keen observation on somewhat of a Dutch specialty, the topographical police story.
"...a topographical detective novel shouldn’t just spew pages of information on a particular region, but turn that knowledge into an essential part of the story."
Docter followed his own advice, for the most part, making a decent amount of the history of Kralingen relevant to the plot and even the bits that weren't were, nonetheless, interesting for anyone even remotely interested in history. It also gave the book character.

Not a Dell Mapback
Cold Woman in Kralingen opens when a surging storm begins tugging the trees and gardener Harm Jispen is letting out Aart van der Linzen, a student he has been assisting with his thesis by allowing to be recorded while telling old folktales in the dialect of Boertange, before fortifying the house and planting himself in front of the television. But the ominous sound of shattering glass lures him from his safe home to inspect his greenhouses and walks straight into the blade of a knife. Enter Commissioner Daan Vissering (a sober minded man from the province of Friesland) and his team of policemen, who go over the scene of the crime with a fine-tooth comb and diligently hunt down leads as they speculate and theorize about every facet of the case. Including the tantalizing problem of why Jispen needed forty eggs, every week!

This makes Docter a lot closer to Anthony Abbot, author of a number of mysteries featuring Commissioner Thatcher Colt of Centre Street, and other members of the Van Dine-Queen School than to John Dickson Carr, who was an unapologetic romanticist. However, the link is not entirely unjustified, because Carr was the master of the locked room mystery and this one has just such a problem – and it gave me quite a turn in spite of being handled in a sober manner. No such nonsense about ghosts and goblins, but sometimes their absence can be even more unnerving!

Roughly fifty pages into the story, we switch from the murder of Harm Jispen to one of the weekly meetings of Kostbaar Kralingen (Precious Kralingen), a shadowy society who apparently gather to appreciate the history of Kralingen, but we immediately learn that it's a front and the lectures are just copied texts being read with nobody really paying any attention to what is being said – the speaker least of all. I also loved how the story transitioned with the society members reading about Jispen's murder in the newspaper. This makes for a pleasing, mystifying read that, uhm, thickens the plot, but the best part is yet to come. 

Cor Docter, "Prince of the Lending Libraries"

The spider in this web, Magda Quarz, uncharacteristically, disappears from the meeting and apparently locked herself up in the bedroom. There's light coming from the crack underneath the door, but there's nothing that can be seen through the vacant keyhole and then it happens: when they decide to look under the door someone, from within the room, forcefully throws the key under the door into the hallway. Goosebumps! They immediately rush the room, but the only person in the room is Magda - sitting in front of the dressing mirror, dead as a doornail, with the markings of strangulation on her throat.

Shocked and wary, the members of Precious Kralingen decide to keep the police out of it, for the time being, and shovel the blame on her 17-year-old son, Harold, who's flogged and driven out of a second-story window. Convinced that the confession they have beaten out of Harold will keep the police out of there business, they call them in and they send Vissering and his men. You guessed it; he isn't fooled, not in the least, especially after finding another clue that consists of forty eggs. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, in which Vissering has to break down the iron-clad resolve of an entire group, link by link, and the way he went about it reminded me a bit of Columbo. You have to understand that Vissering comes from the province and thus not stand, intellectually, in high regard with most of the members of this society. A mistake that was the folly of many murderers who crossed swords with Columbo. When will they ever learn not to underestimate a slouching prise de fer!

Vissering eventually learns what happened in that hallway and figures out how the trick was done, but they show their traces of his past as a pulp writer and I have my reservations about it, however, it was completely original and entirely fair. I have to give Docter props for keeping me from seeing what was blindingly obvious for nearly the entire journey. No idea how I could not have figured that out for so long and it was absolutely simple, but still, it lacked convincibility. Hm. According to my spelling checker that's not a word. Well, you know what I mean. I should mention that I'm not placing Docter in the Gild of Second Stringers, you almost have to forgive a writer some imperfections when delivering a complex and mostly well-done plot, and it's one of the best Dutch-language locked room mysteries I have read to date. A genuine pleasure to read.

Other Dutch-language mysteries I have reviewed:  

Bertus Aafjes' De vertrapte pioenroos (The Trampled Peony, 1973)
Bertus Aafjes' Een lampion voor een blinde (A Lantern for the Blind, 1973)
A.C. Baantjer's DeKok en een dodelijke dreiging (DeKok and a Deadly Threat, 1988)
A.C. Baantjer's DeKok en het lijk op drift (DeKok and the Corpse Adrift, 1998)
M.P.O. Books' De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)
M.P.O. Books' De dood van Callista de Vries (The Death of Callista de Vries, 2012)
Willy Corsari's Voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937) 
Tjalling Dix's Een kogel voor Oedipus (A Bullet for Oedipus, 1954)
Tjalling Dix's Moord op het eindexamen (Murder During the Final Exams, 1957) 
F.R. Eckmar's Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935)
Ben van Eysselsteijn's Romance in F-Dur (19??)   
Theo Joekes' Klavertje moord (Four-Leaf Murder, 1987) 
Simon de Waal's Een mes in de rug (A Knife in the Back, 2012) 

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