Memories of Brick and Mortar

"Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it."
- Gervase Fen (The Case of the Gilded Fly, 1944)

A while ago I wrote a post titled "Dutch Detectives: An Observation," in which I observed that the characters assuming the role of sleuth in Dutch-language mysteries were rarely, if ever, bumbling amateurs. The popular detective figure in Dutch crime-literature is a normal, hardworking policeman who usually has a wife and/or children hovering in the background and they show the influence Georges Simenon had in this niche of the genre.

You can find them all over the place, from Willy Corsari's Inspector Lund and Tjalling Dix's Inspector De Corthe during the Golden Age to Appie Baantjer's Inspector DeKok during the second half of the previous century and M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug novels in this era. Robert van Gulik and Bertus Aafjes adopted historical characters for their tales, Judge Dee from China and Judge Ooka from Japan, but their portrayal aligns with the image of the conscientious, hardworking policeman with a family in the background. I was convinced I had accurately pinned down and defined the Dutch detective story, but I also ended the post with this prediction:

"That last part will probably proof itself to be an eerie foreshadowing that, somewhere in the future, I will have to come back on every word put down here. Every time I think to have a firm grasp on the genre, I stumble across new information or obscure titles that turn my perception of the genre upside down."

Archilles Fell?!
Ted O. Sickens' De man die 'n paar maal vermoord was (The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times, 1942) demoted the official representative of the police, Commissioner Dijkman, to a Lestrade-like figure and threw the mantle of Sherlock Holmes on Ulysses P. Bibber – a mumbling old man who nibbles on the handle of his umbrella when he's thinking. The old man is a doctor in philosophy, who dislikes the idea that people think of him as a detective, but that's what you get if you successfully meddle in murder cases.

Bibber is well acquainted with the technique of asking irrelevant questions and driving Dijkman up the wall with cryptic and untenable remarks as he sits on a chair "gathering wool" all around him. But as atypical as Ulysses P. Bibber himself, is the presence of his biographer and narrator, Mr. Ted O. Sickens himself, strewing footnotes all over the pages that directly challenge the reader – as well as extending a helping hand. Sickens gives his readers an edge over Bibber by informing them (in chapter II) that one of the persons, mentioned in the first chapter, is the murderer. And that's what this story is: a detective story that is a very aware of what it is and one that is more than willing to play along with the reader. A game, basically, between the reader and the author without any literary pretententions. But what's the game about, you ask? 

The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times is Fernand Dumar, an impoverished nobleman, who lives a solitary existence at "Het Steen," a lavish country estate that is slowly falling into decline, and writes his former sister-in-law, Maria Reedingh, is she and her daughters wants to take charge of the home while he's away. Maria is a "lovely fool" and dreamt of returning to the home of her first husband, but a puzzled housekeeper and a foul odor emerging from an empty nursery foreshadows a less then perfect homecoming.

S.S. van Dine Ted O. Sickens
A local carpenter is asked to pry loose the floorboards and remove the dead animal that they presume is stinking up the place, but when the planks are lifted, it's the battered and decaying remains of the baron that emerges from the hole. Bibber and his entourage, consisting of Dijkman, Sickens and Bibber's granddaughter, Monica, who's also married to our narrator, uncover tangled family relations (everyone appears to be related to everyone else in one way or another) in order to find out why, when and how many times the baron died. The solution is fairly clued, but even without the hints, a seasoned mystery reader can anticipate the correct explanation, because they will recognize that the plot is a variation on a time-honored trick that is still being used today – except that it was not as well hidden as it should've been. Perhaps Sickens played the game a little bit too fair? Am I even allowed to label that as a drawback in a Golden Age detective story?  

However, the outdated spelling did manage to annoy me almost as much as the never ending stream of "Ach gunst" and "O gut" flowing from Bibber's mouth (Dr. Fell has nothing on this guy when it comes to uttering ambiguities), but then again, I have to be grateful that they didn't keep referring to the murder as a treurspel – and that is something to be grateful for after suffering through a 1930s translation of a Philo Vance story. It was sort of cute the first few times, but after the umpteenth time I wanted to throttle the translator.

All in all, The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times was an interesting, if somewhat predicable (or even simple?), detective story that played the game with so much enthusiasm that I find it hard to care about its imperfections – 'cause I just love playing the grandest game in the world.

Ted O. Sickens was the penname of Theodor Oscar Louis Sikkens, born in Amsterdam in 1910 and died in Italy in 1979, who wrote for newspapers and magazines before he began writing novels. He apparently also wrote a Christmas story that was translated in 52 languages, but I have no idea what the title of this story. During the war he joined the resistance and according to De Spanningblog he "saved a very large number of fellow Jewish citizens." Understandably, these experiences left their mark on Sikkens and he wasn't able to produce another book until the mid-1950s. I'm not surprised that someone who tried to write in the spirit of John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton and Gladys Mitchell turned out to be a bona-fide hero. Not surprised at all! :)

Oh, each chapter also contains beautiful illustrations from J.F. Doeve, who also did illustrations for Bertus Aafjes, and they also give you that old-time detective feeling you get when you read Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin stories that come with the original drawings. I might add one or two later.

The Great Detective!

Ted O. Sickens bibliography: 

Loetje en de gentleman in de jacht op een baby (Loetje and the Gentleman in the Hunt for a Baby, 1941) 
De man die 'n paar maal vermoord was (The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times, 1942) 
De man die de sleutel had (The Man Who Had the Key, 1954) 
De man die er niet was (The Man Who Wasn't There, 1956)

Oh, so you thought I forgot about him, huh? Well, here's a link to all my reviews of Cor Docter's Commissioner Daan Vissering series.

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