10/17/19

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience (2019) by Anne van Doorn

"Anne van Doorn" is the now open penname of a criminally underrated Dutch crime writer, M.P.O. Books, who made his English debut in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine with a short impossible crime story, "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," 2017) – translated by Josh Pachter. Here, in the Netherlands, we got the third novel-length detective story in the Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong series, De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019).

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience is unquestionably the strongest entry in the series with not only a technically-sound plot, two locked room murders and a dying message, but also with the revelation of a sub-plot that has run through the background of the series, like a red-thread, from the start. A revelation that honestly floored me!

Robbie Corbijn's past had been largely shrouded in secrecy from the beginning and his assistant, Lowina de Jong, found some inconsistencies in his background story. Such as his claim that he had been a policeman, but "no one by that name had ever been in the corps." However, these inconsistencies were revealed here as cleverly planted clues that Books' long-time readers, like yours truly, should have been able to put together and figure out Corbijn's identity – especially the name John in combination with a character who appeared in one of the short stories. You should be able to piece this part of the puzzle together before it's dropped into your lap.

Sadly, I'm an imbecile whose brain is encased in a thick skull, of reinforced concrete, where the light of reason can't reach it!  

So, when the identity of Corbijn was casually revealed, all I could do was dumbly gape at the page before seriously wanting to kick myself. When I learned who he really was, I couldn't help but look at Corbijn like Scrooge must have done when he clasped eyes on the ghost of Jacob Marley. Yes, to say I was pleasantly surprised is somewhat of an understatement, but this is only relatively minor part of the plot.

Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research and Discover is a particulier onderzoeksbureau (private detective agency) specialized in unsolved murders, missing persons and cases with a highly unusual character. Such as the problem of the haunted road from "Het meisje dat bleef rondhangen" ("The Girl Who Stuck Around," 2017) and the ghostly manifestations in "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018). There are many cold, but open, cases in their archive and one of these open files comprises of little more than "a thin dossier." A sad, long-forgotten case of a woman who disappeared thirty-five years ago.

Tessa Verwold had a rough time before she came to the Christian commune Caritashoeve, in Hooglanderveen, where "vulnerable and derailed youngsters were placed and guided" in order to help them find a way back into society. A place where Tessa felt appreciated and at home. She began to make friends and even got a respectable boyfriend, but there was an older man who was interested in her, named Wilco Krook, who was convinced God had brought Tessa on his path – only his infatuation may have been the root-cause of her going missing. Wilco barely survived a beating at the hands of the men of the commune and they claimed Tessa had incited them to do it, but she couldn't confirm or deny their accusation, because she packed her bags that night and left. Never to be seen again!

Corbijn once remarked to De Jong that, from all the missing people he's searching for, he felt "the strongest kinship" with Tessa, because nobody has ever really looked for her. The family called her a child with "a black, scorched soul" and were relieved when she simply disappeared, which makes them incredibly reticent to give the case renewed attention. Since the law only allows them to act "on behalf of someone with a stake in the matter," such as a close relative, the file remained open and unsolved.

One day, they receive a letter from a dying man, Zoltán Rákóczi, who's a retired psychologist that had been involved with the Caritashoeve.

Rákóczi confesses he murdered Tessa in 1983 and buried the body on the lawn of the Caritashoeve, behind a colossal stone bench, but an excavation at the spot proved him to be liar and Corbijn loses face in the eyes of the authorities – losing a lot of prestige they had garnered with the police over the years. So why did he made a false deathbed confession or was there a kernel of truth in his story? Corbijn and De Jong finally get their client that allows them to work on the case. However, the family is still mostly uncooperative, the church community has disbanded and the people involved in the beating of Krook, on the night Tessa disappeared, had scattered. This makes reconstructing that fateful night a daunting task indeed!

I don't want to divulge more about the plot than that, but there are three side-puzzles, namely the two locked room mysteries and dying message, that deserve some consideration.

Geert Eijkholt is one of the people who was involved with the tragedy on that night, in 1983, who now lives in an old, dirty caravan on the lot of a closed, badly neglected garden center. De Jong tried to get into contact with him throughout the first half of the story, but, halfway through, she finds his body hanging from a coat hook inside the caravan. An unfinished dying message has been written on the filthy surface of the floor. However, the door and the window were securely locked or fastened on the inside!

The explanation to this impossible crime is a variation on a trick that has been used before in this series, but worked much better with a locked caravan and the meaning behind the cryptic, incomplete dying message surely was interesting – because it was a clue to a different piece of the puzzle. And this obscure message only makes sense if it was meant to be read by someone actually looking for the truth, like Corbijn and De Jong. This was quite a gamble and it probably would have made more sense, if he tried to write the name of his murderer. Still, a properly done, Dutch-language dying message is a genuine rarity and I'm glad one was included in this detective novel.

As they dig deeper into the past, Corbijn and De Jong stumble across another seemingly impossible crime, but I can't give you any exact details about that one. That being said, this locked room puzzle was brilliantly handled with a false solution, a dramatic reconstruction and a satisfying solution with a touch of originality. The principle behind the locked room-trick is not entirely new, but I don't remember any examples of it being used like this! A very practical and effective way to create a locked room mystery. A second thing I appreciated is how the personality and psychological fingerprints were all over these two impossible crimes.

There is, however, one (minor) disappointment. A big plot-point is finding the body and this is not revealed until the final page of the book, which felt tacked on and a bit of a letdown. The description of the Caritashoeve made me hope for something along the lines of Arthur Porges' short story "These Daisies Told" (1962), but this is the only thing about the plot that slightly bothered me. Everything else was excellent. 

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience stands as the best and most memorable entry in the series with a strong ending that tipped its hat to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, which promises an interesting new direction for Corbijn and De Jong. Add to that two splendidly executed impossible crimes, a dying message and a personal revelation of the protagonist that was as surprising as my first AgathaChristie, you have one of my favorite Dutch detective novels. I honestly can't wait to see where the series goes from here. Highly recommended!

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