Previously, I reviewed De student die zou trouwen (The Student Who Was to Get Married, 2018) by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of Dutch crime writer M.P.O. Books, in which I reported that a third novel and a whole raft of brand new short stories were in the offing – scheduled for publication between July, 2018 and September, 2019. The publisher of this series, E-Pulp, recently put out a newsletter with one of these new short stories as a freebie. I decided to take a look at that story as a followup to my previous review.
"De brieven die onheil spelden" ("The Letters That Spelled Doom") takes place during the year-long investigation detailed in The Student Who Was to Get Married and begins when Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong are discussing another missing persons case that has been dragging on since the early 1980s. A case that will be at the heart of the third novel, De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019).
In this story, Corbijn remembers a murder he had handled, when he was still with the police, which showed certain commonalities with the woman who disappeared in 1983. So he tells his young assistant the story of the murdered fruit farmer and a murderer who appeared to have an indisputable alibi.
The backdrop of the story is a tiny, but idyllic, hamlet with "a mill, and old castle and a meandering river" surrounded by orchards, meadows and grain fields – where cherries, pears and apples were harvested. It was the kind of community where everyone knew each other and the people lived a peaceful, happy existence there. Only stain on the place was a deadly brawl in the village pub twenty-five years ago.
Frank van Steenderen is a fruit farmer who had revitalized the family farm and married the nurse of his late father, Fenna Wessendorp, who are expecting their first child. An idyllic existence brutally torn asunder when Frank is murdered in the farm shop and, on the surface, the murder looks like a robbery gone wrong, but the murderer appears to have known his way around the place and a picture of Fenna had been vandalized – cut to pieces with the blood-smeared murder weapon. Nevertheless, the police find a perfect set of fingerprints on the carving knife and they belong to Frank's half-brother, Peter van Steenderen. The black sheep of the family who had been responsible for the deadly brawl in the village pub all those years ago.
A month later, Fenna finds two threatening letters addressed that had been addressed to her late husband. The letters were written by Peter and accused them of having murdered his father, in order to get the family farm, but promised to return to the village "to settle that old account." So, an open-and shut case, but, in spite of the evidence, Peter could not have killed his half-brother. Peter had died the day before Frank was murdered! You can't wish for better person to alibi you than the Grim Reaper.
I'll throw it out here, because someone is bound to bring it up in the comments, but "The Letters That Spelled Doom" bears an interesting resemblance to the plot of Noël Vindry's Le double alibi (The Double Alibi, 1934). However, the stories are very different in solution and execution. And, no, this is not an impossible crime story.
As Corbijn tells his story, De Jong tries to fit together all of the pieces and comes up with clever, but false, solution implicating the Chestertonian mailman that came with a rock solid motive and provided an answer to the potential question if the letters could have been intercepted – and possibly replaced with threatening ones. A well thought through false solution that are always a joy to find a detective story.
The story ends with Corbijn revealing the only person who could have been the murderer and how the Merrivalean blinkin' cussedness of things in general ruined a potentially perfect crime, which also uncovered a clever, double-layered plot. The story played reasonably fair with the reader, as far as the identity of the murderer is concerned, but you can only really guess at the motive.
On a whole, "The Letters That Spelled Doom" is a good detective story written in the classic mold with an unbreakable alibi, a perfectly acceptable false solution and an intricate, double-layered murder plot. So I have very little to complain about and look forward to the other stories in this series. Particularly the one about the impossible murder on the city bus.
To be continued...