The House in the Woods

"The people who live in places like this think that the rules don't apply to them."
- Inspector Morse
If you've been a regular visitant of this blog, you probably already bumped into Dutch crime-writer M.P.O. Books, who was kind enough to reiterate one of his reviews in English for this blogspot – and I prefaced it with a short, but to the point, introduction. But to safe you the inconvenience of clicking to another page, I will reproduce my prelude here and beef it up with some additional information. Hey, nothing but a five-star service for the customers of this dodgy supplier of red herrings!

Sentenced in Absentia
Marco Books is a struggling author of thriller-cum-detective stories, cut from the same mold as most of the other Euro-style police procedurals, who debuted in 2004 with the novel Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia), in which a murderous conspiracy goes awry and the co-conspirators have to dodge not only an unknown murderer, who wants to spear them on the receiving end of a pitchfork, but also have to deal with Books' series detective, Inspector Bram Petersen. The furrowed-faced Petersen is a veteran detectives on the force, approaching his retirement age at a steady pace, usually backed-up by his able, and younger, colleague, Ronald Bloem, both of whom are stationed at the police precinct that resides over the idyllic Utrechtse Heuvelrug – a setting that immediately conjures up images of Midsomer County and not entirely without reason.

Bij verstek veroordeeld was an auspicious first appearance by an enthusiastic and promising writer, but unfortunately the book didn't make much of an impact on the national scene and was unfairly labeled as a regional roman policier. Nevertheless, he labored on two more books, De bloedzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005) and Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006), which maintained a consistent quality of story telling, plotting and characterization – and the latter has a superb scene involving a rehearsal of a funeral, a busted-open casket and a severed head. The theatrical execution of that particular scene would've received the nodding approval of Ngaio Marsh!

The Eye-Catcher
But he really hit his stride last year, when he published his fourth novel, De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010). It's a beautiful paradigm of plot complexity, in which Books hit upon a grand opening gambit that guaranteed both readers of modern crime novels, who make up a considerable portion of his readership, and incorrigible classicists, like yours truly, had an equally enjoyable reading experience. This opening move basically consists of loading the first few chapters with mystifying, foreshadowing and seemingly unconnected episodes, like an out-of-focus kaleidoscopic photograph, and he spends the rest of the story turning the lens back into focus to create a complete, coherent picture of the incidents as they went down – which allows him to create elaborate, multi-layered plots in the classic tradition and still be a writer that is marketable to a contemporary reading audience.

This, however, also makes it difficult to describe De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), because where does one begin summarizing such a fractured, variegated plot without giving anything away? The first twenty pages alone contain enough material to pad out a number of books, from the unearthing of a skull, in a place miles away from where the actual story takes place, to a married couple finding a crib with an abandoned child in their drive way, and they all, somehow, tie in with the main problem of the story – a grotesque murder committed in a secluded house in Leersum.

The Last Chance
Jacques Vermin was somewhat of a miser, living mostly by his own and recently separated from his wife, who had few friends and accumulated a pile of money from a very nefarious avocation, for which he eventually has to pay with his life when someone sneaks into his abode and beats him over the head with a stoneware urn, encapsulating the ashes of his departed father, smashing to smithereens on impact – and blackening his body with parental residue.

This by-effect of the murder will turn out to be very symbolic and is merely one of the many fascinating patterns that emerge as the story progresses to the inevitable solution. It's not entirely unlike watching someone emanating perfect circles of smoke that seem to playfully interact with one another, but more importantly, he got the concept of fair play down to a T – which tightened the knottiness of the plot even more. The first couple of books had the tendency to withhold crucial information from the reader, but lately he's been making one of his literary heroes, Agatha Christie, very proud and it's a shame that the ethics of reviewing detective stories forbids me to point out a gem of a clue. The unabashed homage to Conan Doyle, concerning a collection of motley colored busts of Napoleon in the study of the victim, should also be mentioned in passing.

I know I have been summary in my description of the book, but its difficult, if not impossible, to discuss the plot without spoiling anything that was set-up in the opening chapters. But suffice to say that this is a lavishly plotted detective story, which looks respectfully over its shoulder to what came before it while marching proudly alongside its peers. Because Petersen and his colleagues become more than just instruments of justice as we learn to know them through a series short intermezzos that barely intrude on the actual story. In short, De laatste kans is a book that nips at heels of such modern grandmasters as William DeAndrea and Bill Pronzini and I, for one, can't wait for the next installment.

"Beware the Jabberwock Books, my son!"
If this was a perfect world, Books would've been recognized as the logical successor to the immense popular Appie Baantjer and this book would've adorned the top-spot of today's bestseller lists. But, alas, that's not the case and I hope that an American or British publisher, questing for a new Eurocrime writer, read this rambling review and decide to give him a shot. De blikvanger and De laatste kans have been the model for the marriage between the modern police procedure and the neo-classic detective novel, and just for that he deserves a broader, more appreciative, audience. 

Yes, Simon, I know... you're generally considered as Baantjer's literary heir, but really, what have you produced over the past few years that comes even close to competing with these staggering pieces of contemporary crime fiction? I haven't been impressed with the Bureau Raampoort series at all, and if you want to reclaim your spot I suggest you start penning another historical mystery with C.J. van Ledden-Hulsebosch at the helm... who solves an impossible crime. Hey, don't blame me for trying! ;-)


  1. Interesting review! It's a shame that this hasn't been translated, though. It sounds like a book I'd enjoy reading.

  2. Books is still very much a Eurocrime writer, whom enjoy a certain popularity at the moment, which gives him a nucleus of a particle of a chance to find his way into the English language. It's not very likely at the moment, but it'd great if a publisher stumbled over this blog post and decide to give him a shot.