"But when the third... gets killed, and all three of them in the same territory, I begin to get suspicious."- Capt. Daniel von Flanagan (Craig Rice's The Fourth Postman, 1951)
Jakob van Schevichaven (1866-1935) is considered here to be the first professional Dutch mystery writer, under the single-name pseudonym "Ivans," who paved the way for later popular writers such as "Havank" and A.C. Baantjer.
I've read and heard about the Fathers of Dutch Crime Fiction, Ivans and Havank, but never got around to reading any of their detective stories, because there's mainly biographical information on the web – while the available plot summaries tend to be vague, unappealing or spoiler ridden. So I never gave them to good old college try. Well, recently, I found a copy of De bosgeest (The Forest Spirit, 1926) on my shelves and thought: why not. It has to happen sometime.
|Book has a ton of these illustrations!|
Ivans' series characters are a well know, celebrated English detective, named Geoffrey "G.G." Gill, and a Dutch lawyer, Willem Hendriks, who has been chronicling his cases since De man uit Frankrijk (The Man from France, 1917). Gill and Hendriks were obviously cast from the same mold as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, but, interestingly, Hendriks was presented as a more developed, individual character while G.G. acted more as one of the stereotypical, lower-ranking Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, i.e. Martin Hewitt.
The Forest Spirit was originally published in 1926, but Hendriks informs the reader the story took place several years before The Great War (i.e. First World War) and began with a telegram from G.G. announcing his arrival the next day. G.G. invites Hendriks, alongside with his family (wife and daughter), on a trip to the Eifel (Germany) where they soak up the landscape of hill-and low mountain tops, ruins of medieval strongholds, circle-shaped lakes (maar) and lots of green – even the rude, inhospitable locals can't dampen the mood. The problems begin when a mistake, made at the hotel they booked, forced them to take refuge in a familiepension (hostel). Hendriks wakes up in the middle of the night to see a dark form with yellow/green eyes peering at him through the open bedroom window, but, naturally, there was nothing to be found upon investigation.
I think there was something positively tantalizing about a ghostly apparition in an early 1900s mountain hostel in Germany, followed by the striking of matches and flickering, dying lights of fire, as a household of guests awakes in utter confusion. It was a brief, but nice, scene, I thought! Moving on...
|Old-fashioned spelling of De Bosgeest|
The next day, during one of their daily hikes, G.G. and Hendriks, see a frightened road worker running and screaming "murder" and "bosgeest," which leads them to the body of a forest ranger and he wasn't the first one to be murdered in the region. Previously, three forest rangers have been murdered, back of their heads caved in, but the police have never been able to find any trace of the murderer. In the last case, the victim was found by following his footsteps, it had rained just before, but they were also the only footprints discovered on the scene – fanning the flames of superstition. Amazingly, the impossible situation of the footprints is mentioned only once and the problem explained itself in the end, which became a slight disappointment as I read on. No theorizing? False solutions? Boo!
Seasoned mystery readers familiar with the early classics will probably experience an "aha" moment at this point, but, first, I have to credit Ivans here for not blatantly copying Edgar Allan Poe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was also a good idea to split the interest for the only real suspect in the game in two camps: the official police, who think he's guilty, while G.G. is convinced he's afraid of the spirit. I was never quite sure if I was on the right track, even though I picked up on an obscure clue, which is what I liked. What I don't like, however, is that I still don't know if I like The Forest Spirit. Ivans went full "Weird Menace" with the solution, and I grunted when it was confirmed, but the explanation is unsettlingly convincing and the motive has a lot to do with it. That, and the villain of the story. Mary Gregor from Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) and Mr. Ratchett from Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express (1935) were saints compared to this character!
So, yeah, I'm divided on The Forest Spirit, which began as a mysterious travelogue set in Caspar David Friedrich Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Mist), merging into Holmesian-era detective story and ending on an unsettling weird note... but I can't get pass the how of the murders. I don't think I like it, but than again, I'm probably too traditional minded for the alternative crime novel. That is John's department.