During the past year, I reviewed two Dutch short story collections by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of crime novelist M.P.O. Books, in which he laid the groundwork for a series of detective stories about a pair of particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators), Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong – specialized in cases which have lain unsolved for years or even decades. They work primarily on missing person cases and unsolved murders, but occasionally also take on problems too bizarre for the police (e.g. "The Girl Who Stuck Around" from the second collection).
So far, there have been two collections of short stories and two full-length novels with more short stories and a third novel in the offing in the coming months.
De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017) collected the first short stories in this series and was followed by the novel-length De ouders keerden niet terug (The Parents Didn't Return, 2017). De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen en andere mysteries (The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, 2018) appeared earlier this year and was recently followed by De student die zou trouwen (The Student Who Was to Get Married, 2018). There are twelve stories scheduled to be published between July, 2018 and September, 2019 with a third novel to be released that same year – entitled De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Cleared His Conscience, 2019). The third batch of short stories looks very promising and apparently includes two stories of the impossible variety.
I decided to finally take a crack at the novels and, as to be expected from me, I ignored the chronology of the series and picked up the second book, but this time there's a good reason for it. The Student Who Was to Get Married is the conclusion of forty year old missing person case that Corbijn is obsessed with and has been referred to in the short stories numerous times. A second reason is that part of the story takes place in Utrecht. Just look at the beautiful Domtoren (Dom Tower) on the book cover!
The 23-year-old Jan Willem de Geer is the student of the book-title, who completed his study in biochemical engineering in 1976 with honors, which earned him a research grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was about to get married to Helma Lansink – after which they would emigrate to the United States. On July 8, 1976, nine days before his wedding and two weeks before they would move to America, De Geer simply vanished from the face of the Earth.
On the day of his disappearance, De Geer had called his fiance, borrowed the bicycle from a fellow student and went to a bookstore in the center of Utrecht. There he ordered a book and bought a newspaper, which will play a key-part in the investigation, but there the trail simply ended. De Geer was never heard or seen of again.
De Geer was in a good mood on the day of his disappearance, although he was worried about something in the preceding days, but nothing to indicate he was planning to cut and run. So the family and his fiance are shocked when, two months later, a young woman by the name of Vicky Kramer turns up out of the blue and claims she's pregnant with De Geer's child – result of a one-night stand back in February. Kramer has a bank check, signed by De Geer, as prove he was to acknowledge their unborn child and cancel the wedding. However, more than a decade later, a DNA-test proved Kramer had been lying and scammed the well-to-do family of De Geer out of a small fortune. The last tangible clue was the borrowed bicycle that was eventually dredged, properly locked, from a rural canal near a hamlet in South Holland. Someone had obviously dumped it there.
This happened forty years ago and the case has not only gone cold, but the statute of limitations, in case of murder, run out in 1994. Only thing the family can really hope for is finding the remains of De Geer and learning what really happened on the sweltering summer day in 1976. So they hire Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover.
Corbijn has been obsessing over this case since the series began and there are numerous references to their tireless investigation in the short stories. In the final story of The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, "De dame die niet om hulp had gevraagd" ("The Lady Who Had Not Asked for Help"), Corbijn tells a story to De Jong about a previous case, while they wait for the identification of a recently unearthed skeleton, which was found when a fallen tree had lay bare a shallow grave – clues found in the grave suggest that the skeleton may belong to the long-missing Jan Willem de Geer. These clues are his watch and the keys of the bicycle. Well, the remains are identified as belonging to De Geer and he was brutally beaten to death before being buried.
Corbijn and De Jong begin their last, exhausting leg of this long-dragging investigation and the path to the truth bridges stretches across an entire year as they question the people who are still alive and (interestingly) let them read the old, 1976 newspaper De Geer had bought on the day he disappeared – hoping this may yield a clue. They also have to answer the puzzling question why the remains of De Geer was unearthed in a secluded area, on the Darthuizerberg near the village of Leersum, on the Utrechtse Heuvelrug and the bicycle in the Woerdense Verlaat. Those two places are at least 40 kilometers apart.
So this reads more like a police procedural than a detective novel. Only difference is that instead of two professional policemen we have a pair private investigators who plow through this case like an unflagging, doggedly-determined Inspector French.
There are traces here of the police procedural in the private lives of Corbijn and De Jong, which, by the way, do not intrude on the story like so many other modern crime series do. There are, however, problems in the personal lives of the two detectives. De Jong has trouble at home stemming from a debt she inherited from her father and Corbijn, who's very keen on his privacy, has several skeletons rattling in his closet throughout the book. This makes me suspect that Corbijn is the man who'll relieve his conscience in the third novel.
There were also several references to the coming stories and some were very interesting to say the least. One of the case they're working on in the background is a murder by strangulation of an American on a city bus, but nobody on the bus saw or heard a thing! A second case they're looking into is a fifty year old murder of a Belgian mine-worker committed hundreds of meters underground! I only wish the mine-murder story was set even further back into the past, because that would given him the opportunity to use the now long-vanished country of Neutral Moresnet. A miniature state that once existed from 1816 to 1920 on the three-country-border between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The country existed around a zinc mine and, due to its special status, was used as a clearing point for liquor smuggling. Moresnet was a Libertarian's wet-dream come true. Somehow, this unique place, brimming with possibilities, was never used in a detective story. Not even in an adventure or spy yarn. Believe me, I looked. Anyway...
The Student Who Was to Get Married is not a detective story, but a police procedural in the private-eye mold and this makes for engaging story, as you follow them along, but you're never placed in a position that allows you to put all the pieces together yourself. There are hints and foreshadowing, but nothing in the way of proper clueing. However, you discover everything at the same time as Corbijn and De Jong. So the book plays fair in regards that the detectives don't keep anything from the reader.
However, despite this not being really a proper detective story, I burned through the pages like an unquenchable forest fire. You see, long before the impossible crime genre stole my heart, I was fascinated by detective stories in which the past rises from the grave to obscure the present by the unearthing of a pile of bones. I also mention this interest in my 2011 review of Bill Pronzini's Bones (1985) and probably explained myself a lot better there. I simply find intriguing how these stories not only piece together the scattered, time-worn pieces of a long-forgotten crime, but often also have reconstruct the past itself. Something that was very well done here as a hot-button political issue of the 1970s and the effects of the seventeen-day heatwave dovetails with the who, how and why of the murder.
The Student Who Was to Get Married was a well-written, compelling crime novel that kept me glued to the pages. I'm looking forward to the coming short stories and one of them will be reviewed before too long.