"Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil's pet baits."- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle")
Ton Vervoort was the non-de-plume of Peter Verstegen, born in 1938 in The Hague and if the absence of a date of death on his wikipedia page is any indication, he will be celebrating his 75th birthday on July 30 of this year. A few days ago, Ton Vervoort, one of those all-but-forgotten mystery writers reappeared on my radar screen when "Plaat-van-de-Maand," a monthly item on a Dutch thriller blog high-lighting the works of forgotten authors, picked him for March and I just happened to have his first mystery novel kicking around – but have no recollection where and when I picked it up.
|Murder Among Students (1962)|
Moord onder studenten (Murder Among Students, 1962) introduces the readers to the character of Ton Vervoort, student and hand-picked chronicler of a slightly eccentric inspector of the Amsterdam police force, Floris Jansen, who broke with the traditional, sober minded Dutch policeman that usually prowl these tales and have discussed a few of them on previous occasions (e.g. Cor Docter and Tjalling Dix). Jansen is aware that he's playing a role and modeled himself on the popular detectives from fiction, like Philo Vance and early-period Ellery Queen, but gave a somewhat plausible explanation for breaking the mold. Before he arrived on the scene, the newspapers had no reason to mimic their overseas colleagues when it came to sensational murder cases, but now that they had one of those fancy detectives, he simply helps selling the story. However, there's more: Jansen grandmother was an impoverished Russian noblewoman, who married a Dutch painter in France, and his Eastern-style home, leisurewear and half-Persian wife also gives Jansen a dash of Prince Zaleski – minus the decadence and social withdrawnness. And wasn’t M.P. Shiel also Prince Zaleksi's narrator?
Verstegen was a very genre savvy mystery writer whose characters converse on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, deductive vs. intuitive reasoning and quote Agatha Christie, and if that wasn't enough, he dusts off a few props from his predecessors – and an official police investigator is the only concession made to realism. You could almost classify it as a pastiche.
Murder Among Students opens with Ton Vervoort stumbling to his feet, after an unknown assailant knocked his lights out when he was going upstairs to ask the wife of their landlord, Mrs. Van Duinhoven, if they she wanted to join an impoverished birthday party for a fellow tenant, Grandpa Hobbema. Vervoort was lucky enough to escape with his life, because the person who bumped into him had just returned from stabbing Mrs. Van Duinhoven in her bedroom and purloin a valuable blue diamond. The stone was kept in a safe and only used to gaze into during private séances, however, the replica Mrs. Van Duinhoven wore was missing, too!
|Peter Verstegen a.k.a. "Ton Vervoort."|
Before I continue, I have to make a note here on the title of the book, which is a bit of a misnomer. It implies a murder at a student hostel, but the setting is an apartment complex were a few rooms are let to students and quite of few of the suspects are related to Mrs. Van Duinhoven.
There's the unpleasant and not much loved landlord, Mr. Van Duinhoven, and their children, son Robbert and daughter Jos, and Hugo ter Laak, a son from Mrs. Van Duinhoven's first marriage. Otto Warendorf is Jos' fiancé and an active member in various student societies. Willie Klook is another promising, beautiful student and secretly engaged to our narrator. Iwan Mulder studies medicine and had a special friendship with Mrs. Van Duinhoven. Eighty-year-old birthday boy, Grandpa Hobbema, loves to go to funerals of strangers, getting away with it by being mistaken for a long-forgotten great uncle, and finally we have the hustling neighbors Mr. and Mrs. De Boer. Their "shenanigans" make for an involving plot that is, at times, very aware of itself. One of the students even addresses the problem of the book title by commenting on the newspaper that is placing the murder in university circles. The students do play a part in the plot, but the title is rather, uhm, arbitrary? I think Moord onder huurders (Murder Among Tenants) would've been a better and funnier title, because it's the landlords who drop like flies among their own tenants.
Yes! Mr. Van Duinhoven croaks as well and was found in his bed not long after stumbling into the home, drunk and out of his mind, pointing an accusing finger at Vervoort and yelled shrilly, "Jij! Jij! Jij hebt het gedaan!" ("You! You! You have done it!"). A "lovely Poe-effect," Jansen remarks, in reference to Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Thou Art the Man," but the poisoning of Mr. Van Duinhoven is a clever piece of plotting in itself. Thrown together with the jumble of the stolen stones, clues consisting of a lingering whiff of cigarette smoke, clocks, cats and a false solution that played on a classic plot device made for an entertaining read. Murder Among Students is not a book you pick up for it's great writing or grasp on characterization, but absolutely perfect if you are in one those pulpy moods and crave for a story with a complicated murder plot, stolen diamonds, a scheming master detective, a capricious killer and enough references to play "spot-the-nod."
There's just one thing that bugged me: Jansen bragged that his detectives were very good at searching, but somehow they missed a safe that was hidden behind a few books?
Ton Vervoort/Peter Verstegen bibliography (untranslated):
Moord onder studenten (Murder Among Students, 1962)
Moord onder toneelspelers (Murder Among Performers, 1963)
Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologers, 1963)
Moord onder de mantel der liefde (Murder Under the Cloak of Love, 1964)
Moord onder maagden (Murder Among Virgins, 1965)
Moord op toernee (Murder on Tour, 1965)
De zaak Stevens (The Stevens Case, 1967)De zuivelduivel (The Dairy Devil, 1975; a SF-detective)