"You're are a warm person with a cold job in a chilly country."- An old Surinamese man to DeKok (DeKok and the Dead Pall-Bearer, episode 9.5).
|A.C. Baantjer (1923-2010)|
Despite the fact that foreign critics draped the mantle of Georges Simenon and Conan Doyle over Appie Baantjer's shoulders, in recognition of his talent as a storyteller whose words gave life to a detective as human as Jules Maigret and possessive of amaranthine qualities comparable to those of Sherlock Holmes, he continues to be tagged as a second-rate hack – and admitting that you derive any sort of pleasure from his writing is not entirely like openly fessing up your dirty bedroom secrets. But as someone who tirelessly champions the legacy of archaic, unremembered mystery writers, I defy this snobbish notion and proudly proclaim that it was Appie Baantjer who lit the furnace in which my undying love for the detective story has burned ever since.
|The Thirteen Cats, 1963|
Albert ("Appie") Cornelis Baantjer came into this world on September 16, 1923 in the small seafaring village of Urk, but escaped from a predestinated life as a fisherman when the family moved to Amsterdam – where they lived as a regular, working class family until the war. During the German occupation, Baantjer voluntarily took the place of a colleague, a father of two children, who was designated for labor in Germany, but ended up in prison after forging leave notes for fellow laborers. After the war, he wanted to go to Dutch-Indonesia but his father prevented that from happening by scrawling his sons name on a job application form – which landed him a forty-year career on the Amsterdam police force where he ended up finding a second vocation as the nations best-selling crime novelist.
The literary talents of this rookie cop were gradually discovered through the obligatory paperwork that came with the job. Police reports rolled effortlessly from his typewriter, while colleagues were struggling to find the correct words or right turn of phrase. This inevitable resulted in a book, 5x8 grijpt in!: politie-ervaringen uit de grote stad (5x8 Intervenes: Police-experiences From the Big City, 1959), which he co-authored with a fellow policeman, Maurice van Dijk, under the penname, A.C.M. Baandijk. Unfortunately, it was not a premonition of things to come and it did so poorly that the book was never reissued after its initial publication, making this, in combination with a limited print run, a rarity on the collectors market.
|Murder by Moonlight, 1996|
Baantjer persevered in writing stories, mostly semi-fictionalized anecdotes, which were collected under his own name in a volume entitled Het mysterie van de doodshoofden (The Mystery of the Dead Heads, 1963), all the while slowly, but surely, making a name for himself as an up-and-coming crime novelist. He achieved minor successes with Een strop voor Bobby (A Noose for Bobby, 1963) and De dertien katten (The Thirteen Cats, 1963), but they were atypical of the stories he would come to write in the years ahead. The former begins as a noirish study of characters but turns into a full-fledged locked room mystery in the final quarter of the story, while the latter has an unusual plot in which everyday crime seemingly goes hand in hand with the supernatural – tantamount to John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court (1937) and Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Gold Murders (1959).
Early 1965, marked the first appearance of Inspector DeKok, whose worn hat and rumpled raincoat became as iconic as Columbo's tousled head of hair and stumpy cigar, and his trusty sidekick Vledder – solving their first case in De wurger op zondag (The Sunday Strangler). DeKok and Vledder are crude and undefined characters in these primordial tales and the plots unimpressive and often cheated by withholding crucial information from the reader. For example, in Het lijk in de kerstnacht (The Corpse on Christmas Eve, 1965) and De dode harlekijn (The Dead Harlequin, 1968) the characters assuming the role of the murderer aren't introduced to the reader until the final chapter.
|The Merry Bacchus, 2001|
The publication of De treurende kater (The Sorrowing Tomcat, 1969) ushered in a sort of neo-classicist period, in which the plotting tightened, the characterization sharpened and conventional tropes from a previous era began popping-up. De stervende wandelaar (The Dying Stroller, 1972) has a solution that hinges on a dying message; Moord in séance (Murder in Séance, 1981) has a classic closed-circle of suspects situation reminiscent of Agatha Christie and De ganzen van de dood (The Geese of Death, 1983) is a take-off on the British country house mystery – stocked with members of an aristocratic, inbred family. These books, jotted down between 1969 and 1989, were not yet bound by a rigid formula and evinces a lot of imagination and willingness to experiment – which naturally make these best and most rewarding reads in the series.
Admittedly, the fully developed formula validates part of criticism launched against Appie Baantjer as a writer and can't be written off as invidious accusations over his record breaking book sales, which left literary thrillers in a cloud of dust kicked up as each novel made a dash to the top echelons of the bestseller lists, since it's undeniable that it stifled the tentative plotting and experimental creativity. But this later, formulaic period is often put forward as an argument in dismissing his entire body of work as hack writing, which is not only unjust but also petty and childish. The early and mid-period books deserve to be recognized for what they are, and even the formulaic ones aren't entirely without interest.
|The Frisky Widow, 2006|
The sheer readability of his prose easily distracts your attention away from a routine plot and some of them hark back to the days that lay behind them: Tranen aan de Leie (Tears at the Leie, 1997) centers on a series of bizarre poisonings and has Baantjer sniping at the leniency of criminal prosecutors and judges; De onsterfelijke dood (The Immortal Death, 1998) is a throwback to the supernatural tinged stories; De blijde Bacchus (The Merry Bacchus, 2001) has a very original motive and De dartele weduwe (The Frisky Widow, 2006) was his last performance that was above average before the great drop off, but that's to be expected from a writer in his eighties who turned out books on a yearly basis for over fifty years!
After his wife passed away in 2007, he decided to put an end to the long running DeKok series with Dood in gebed (Death in Prayer, 2008) and quit writing altogether, but after a while he started to get the itch again started a new series with a co-author, Simon de Waal, who also happened to be an ex-colleague of Baantjer. The main characters are thinly disguised versions of themselves and Baantjer's character is an elderly detective who recently lost his wife, but continues to have long conversations with her. Awwww!
Unfortunately, he only contributed to the first three titles in the series before losing a short, but intensive, bout with cancer, which was, at the end of this month, exactly one year ago. My motivation for hastily scribbling this summary overview of his life and career is the hope that my fellow bloggers will join me in a little tribute on August 29, 2011 – in commemoration of the one-year anniversary of his passing.
Don't worry, Baantjer's novels are readily available, including a batch of brand new translations from Speck Press, and I hope we can clutter the blogosphere on that day with reviews of his books. Let me know if you want to join the party.
(yes, I know, this isn't exactly a scholarly piece of writing, but I did it in a hurry because I want to give everyone enough time to obtain a book to read at their leisure. And yes, I used the English spelling of DeKok's name, because the Dutch spelling makes the filters of search engines a bit nervy).