"I cannot understand how the police could have been so blind..."- The Old Man (Baroness Orczy's "The York Mystery," collected in The Old Man in the Corner, 1908)
Back in May, I reviewed a Dutch short (locked room) story by Anne van Doorn, titled "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In"), which was offered at the time as a freebie by E-Pulp Publishers. A small, independent, publishing outfit that had turned its back on the drab, gloomy realism of the psychological school of modern crime-fiction and vowed to return to "the time of pulp fiction" when mystery and imagination would await all who would seek it – be it in a short story or a full-length novel. So you'll not find a single title in their catalog with the predicate "literary thriller" emblazoned on the front-cover.
Several months have passed since my previously mentioned blog-post and a number of potentially interesting titles were published during that period. One of these releases was Van Doorn's De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017), which is a rare, modern-day, collection of short stories and includes "The Poet Who Locked Himself In."
The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries consists of five short stories about Van Doorn's series-characters, Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong, who are particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators) specialized in oude zaken (old cases) that the police were unable to successfully bring to a close – which vary from long-standing missing person cases to unsolved murders. Corbijn is both the head and brains of Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover, while De Jong acts as his assistant, pupil and chronicler. She pretty much plays the Dr. Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. They work from an apartment in a residential tower, called the Kolos van Cronesteyn, standing on the outskirts of Leiden, South-Holland.
This compendium opens with a brief opmerking vooraf (comment in advance), in which Van Doorn laments the lack of room in today's literary landscape for the short story and professed an admiration for the short detective stories by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy. And told that the five stories that make up this collection were written in the tradition of those three classic mystery writers. Lastly, Van Doorn ended with the suggestion to read the stories in the order they appear and no more than a day, because "each story only comes into its own when you read no more than one per day."
Apparently, that's how Van Doorn learned to read and appreciate short stories. Well, I succeeded in reading them in order, but burned through them in less than five days. What can I say? I'm a wholesale consumer of detective fiction. So, let's take down these stories from the top.
The first story in this collection is the locked room yarn I reviewed back in May, "The Poet Who Locked Himself In," which is why I'm not going to discuss it here again, but, needless to say, it's always a special treat to come across an impossible crime story in my own language – particularly when the locked room trick is a good one. And it was this specific story that inspired me to compile a list of Dutch-language locked room novels and short stories, which you can find here.
The second story lends its name to this collection, "De geliefde die in het veen verdween" ("The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog"), which begins as a modern-day crime story about a missing property developer, who had ties with the underworld, but ended in the most classical way imaginable.
Corbijn and De Jong are approached by the woman living next to the office, Letty Kreft, whose niece, Ingeborg Greshoff, has a boyfriend who has been missing for six-and-a-half years. Guido Eickhout was a project developer and an ardent hiker, but on his last hike in the Belgian Ardennes, in the Hoge Vennen, he simply vanished from the face of the Earth. Tragically, Greshoff learned that he had ordered golden engagement rings and planned to propose to her upon his return.
The local police believes Eickhout had been murdered by one of his criminal associates and the body had been hidden somewhere in "the outstretched forests, marshy peatlands, bogs" and the heathlands. Greshoff is well aware that the murderer might never be caught or has perhaps been killed himself in another criminal related shooting, which is why she now only wants to find the body and give her would-be-fiance a decent burial. Corbijn accepts the case and travels to the misty, boggy Ardennes and slowly begins to unravel the tapestry of a plot as clever and intricate as anything found in Ellery Queen or Edward D. Hoch. A plot that consists of such tricky puzzle-pieces as "a man with a red sports bag," the pealing of the warning bell at a small chapel, once used as a "beacon for wandering hikers," and a local story from the 19th century – about two lovers who got lost on the fens and perished in a snowstorm.
Plot-wise, "The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog" is the strongest of the five stories in this collection and one of my two personal favorites, which goes to show that even in this country some form of shin honkaku detective fiction can exist.
The next story is titled "De arts die de weg kwijt was" ("The Doctor Who Got Lost On the Way") and is a departure from the cold case formula of the series, because the problem at hand is only a couple of days old. And consists of no less than two seemingly impossible situations!
A doctor from the Laakkwartier in Den Haag (The Hague), named Thomas van Ooijen, is in desperate need for an answer as to what has happened to him several days ago. One night, he was called on his smartphone by a patient, who needed special care, but when he arrived in the street where his patient lived he was waited upon by an unknown man and was ushered to a top-floor apartment – where he found a young woman strapped to a bed with an inflamed gunshot wound. A second man, who was present in the room, came across very threateningly and made it abundantly clear that it was in his best interest to help the girl without asking questions. This situation recalls the premise of R. Austin Freeman's The Mystery of 31, New Inn (1912), but what happens next takes the story in an entirely different direction.
When Van Ooijen finished working on the woman, he blacked out and was found later that night by two policemen inside his locked car that had been parked near the Kurhaus in Scheveningen. He had a splitting headache, the smell of alcohol clung to him and the keys, with remote control attached to it, lay on the dash board. Only he himself could have locked himself into his own car. So the police had a hard time believing his story, but what made Van Ooijen doubt himself is when the police accompanied him to the address and discovered that the place was a ground-floor house. The stairs and the entire top-floor apartment had disappeared!
The premise of the story and the explanation for the two impossibilities constitute the best aspects of this story. Corbijn practically solves the problem of the vanishing top-floor apartment from his armchair by consulting Google Maps, but the mystery of the locked car is a little bit more involved and requires a practical demonstration to show how it was done. I've seen the principle behind this particular trick before, but to apply this idea to a modern car with a remote control key is a new ripple.
However, I was not very impressed by the ending of the story or how an all-important plot-thread was left dangling in the wind. The story literally ended with “we will probably never know why [redacted] did so much to save her life.” What? That was, like, the entire mainspring of the plot and you leave it hanging in the air! Very, very disappointing. And the reason why this story ended up as the weakest entry in this collection. It began strong, but ended weakly.
Luckily, the next story in this collection, “Het joch dat grenzen overschreed” (“The Brat Who Went Too Far”), is my second favorite and is a good example of, what Bill Pronzini calls, humanist detective fiction. A sad and tragic murder case that would “never have become a case if there was no loneliness.” Or rather if the people involved had someone close to them to care about.
A lawyer, Elvira Guikema, calls in the help of Corbijn and De Jong on behalf of one of her clients, Geertruida Smelinck, who has been convicted for the premeditated murder of her neighbor's nine-year-old son, Ward Koehoorn – who was a regular Denis the Menace. The backdrop of this case is a glumly, dead-end side street with only three houses. It's a neglected neighborhood where people on one of the bottom rungs of society live a dismal, monotonous life.
Smelinck was a recluse with a dark past and the mother of the victim, Debby, had begun to prostitute herself after she was abandoned by Ward's father. An elderly retiree, Mr. Van den Ham, lived in the third home and filled his days by taking care of his sick wife and was an important witness as to what happened that fateful day. The last person is their landlord, Dirk van Grijpskerk, who lives far more comfortable than his tenants in a brand new bungalow.
On this already gloomy, dismal existence, Ward was an additional burden and the boy had picked Smelinck as his favorite target. So there was no question about her guilt when the boy was found in her garden with a rusty rod sticking out of his body. A year before, Ward had stolen all of the apples from the tree in her garden and everyone assumed he was caught and killed when he tried to repeat it a second time.
However, Smelinck maintained her innocence and Corbijn, alongside De Jong, travel to the province of Groningen to visit the desolate place where the murder took place three years ago. The plot is not overly complicated and the evidence, consisting of a key of the garden door, fingerprints and the witness statements, eventually bears out the simple truth. A simple truth I almost completely missed, because I was staring myself blind on my own pet hypothesis. I was only correct on a single technical aspect of the plot, but hey, being proven wrong can be as fun as completely solving the case. And really liked the background and story-telling of this one.
Finally, the last story of the lot, "De vluchteling die alles achterliet" ("The Refugee Who Left Everything Behind"), is yet another nail in the coffin of the ludicrous claim that the advance of forensic science, such as DNA, has made clever and classically-styled detective plots absolute – which is simply not true. This claim had already been shattered, decades before it was made, by Isaac Asimov in The Caves of Steel (1954) and again demonstrated to be false by Keigo Higashino's controversial Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005). Van Doorn approach to this is not as grand as those by Asimov and Higashino, but it nonetheless shows how DNA can be used as misdirection when manipulated and/or misinterpreted.
The background of the story has its roots in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. A Bosnian refugee, Zlatko Hodzic, came to the Netherlands in 1994 and vanished from an asylum center in 1996 without a trace.
One day earlier, Susanne Westera, disappeared under equally inexplicable circumstances from her home on the Wadden Island of Terschelling. A thorough police investigation determined that Zlatko and Susanna were in secret relationship, which was confirmed by DNA found in her home, but nothing else materialized from this discovery and they were relegated to never-ending list of missing persons who were never found. And the case remained unresolved for more than twenty years. Now the father of Susanne is terminally ill and wants to make a last ditch effort to clear up the case, which brings Corbijn and De Jong into the picture.
This story is, structurally, similar to the title story of this collection as both begin as apparently modern-crime stories, with a problem rooted in contemporary times, but the resolutions to these two stories are classic examples of old-fashioned misdirection and craftsman-like plotting – topped, in this case, with a nifty trick to get rid of a pesky body. So not a bad story to close out this collection.
All in all, The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries is a solid collection of contemporary detective stories in the classic mold and a fine showcase of the all-but-lost art form known as the short story format. A form preferred by the early Titans of the genre. So it does me great joy to see a mystery writer from my own country continuing this age-old tradition and a second short story collection has already been announced for next year, De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen en andere mysteries (The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, 2018).
Finally, I want to point out my own objectivity. There were two impossible crime stories in this volume, but my two favorites were "The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog" and "The Brat Who Went Too Far." So maybe my obsession with locked room mysteries hasn't really gone all that far after all! But is that a good thing or have I just let down the spirit of John Dickson Carr?