Karel Abma was a Dutch notary and the author of De hond was executeur (The Dog Was Executor, 1973), a practically forgotten and long out-of-print novel, which has been summarily described on the internet as a detective story about "an inheritance issue and a divorce case" – converging around the tangled legacy of a lonely miser. If you glance at the cover, you can probably make an educated guess what drew my attention to this little-known mystery novel.
Unfortunately, The Dog Was Executor is not exactly an all-out, guns blazing, locked room mystery and the locked room element was so insignificant, I decided against tagging this review as an impossible crime. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Riemsdorp is the backdrop of The Dog Was Executor, a village "rich in front gardens and white-painted bridges," which is slowly being annexed, "field after field, yard after yard, with everything on it," by Amsterdam – less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) away. The bailiffs perpetually haunted the village with "a bag full of expropriation writs." Setting the tone for the rest of the story.
Johannes Blaudop is a 77-year-old recluse and miser who lives in a small, blue plastered house on the Vaartweg, known locally as "het Zwartelaantje" (the dark lane), where his only companion is a Belgian shepherd, Argus. Blaudop is "criminally tight" when it comes to spending money and notorious for his dogs, which has lead to legal problems on more than one occasion. The villages thought he was mostly crazy, but with "damned cunning" edge to his twisted mind and they generally disliked him. So nobody really missed Blaudop when he didn't show his head for a couple of days until the mailman notices a card stuck behind one of the windows, saying "On Holiday," but the dog can be heard frantically barking inside. And the odor emanating from the place has the kind of presence that lingers.
The police is notified and they enter the house to rescue the dog, but what they find is Blaudop's decomposing body in the anteroom, close to the wardrobe, where he had been laying for nearly two weeks! Blaudop had a died of cardiac arrest, but a slight head wound showed he had fallen with his head against the wardrobe and the card behind the window, in combination with the missing key to the backdoor and the presence of a bloodstained handkerchief, suggests the possibility of murder – leaving the authorities with a plethora of unanswered questions. Admittedly, the premise of a man of whom no one can say for sure whether, or not, he was murdered and whether he was rich, or poor, sounded intriguing, but don't expect too much from the answers to this various questions. The Dog Was Executor is an entirely different type of animal compared to the Golden Age and neo-classical detective novels that dominate this blog. A character-driven crime novel with a social conscience and a handful of different "detectives" to tackle the various criminal and legal aspects of the case.
Chief Inspector Messing is officially in charge of the case, but Blaudop named his former lawyer, Karel IJ. van Woudrichem, his testamentary executor and is tasked with finding his long-estranged daughter, Dinie. She was taken as a 9-year-old girl to Canada by his ex-wife, which is the source of Blaudop's bitterness and disdain for authority because they allowed his daughter to be taken. And the legwork of the tracking down the inheritors (including a not-legally disinherited son) is placed on the shoulders of a junior notary, Evert Dijkgraaf. Frank Kok is the police's dog expert-and trainer who has to get the wild dog out of the house and tame it. Lastly, there's the village itself, which is always buzzing with rumors and speculations about the case.
The questions they try to answer is who was in the house when Blaudop died and did this person had a hand in his death? Why didn't his dog defend him? Was there a modest fortune in 1000 gulden banknotes and what happened to it? Where's his daughter and who was the mysterious fisherman? Why was a World War I photograph stolen after the body had been found and removed? There are even some courtroom scenes when someone is apprehended with incriminating evidence on him and is charged. So the story is busy enough, but hardly any of it made for a good or even mildly satisfying detective story.
When I started reading The Dog Was Executor, the plot's legal wrangling brought the novels of Cyril Hare to mind (e.g. Tragedy at Law, 1942), but written in the style and spirit of the Realist/Social School of Georges Simenon and Seicho Matsumoto, until turning over the last page and realized it was very similar to another 1970s "detective" novel – namely Ulf Durling's Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971). Hard Cheese is a Swedish novel that began as an old-fashioned, classically-styled homage to the Golden Age detective novel, but the ending revealed it to be a novel of character and petty crimes masquerading as locked room mystery. You can pretty much say the same about The Dog Was Executor. Only difference between the two is that Abma obviously never had any intention, whatsoever, to write anything remotely resembling a traditional whodunit. The Dog Was Executor is a modern crime novel with a pinch of social commentary loosely based on true stories reported in the daily newspapers, which Abma acknowledges in "A Message to the Reader" printed on the opening page covered with newspaper clippings.
So, all in all, Abma's The Dog Was Executor was not exactly a rewarding read, if you prefer the plot-driven puzzle detective story, but it was a shot in the dark based solely on the cover art vaguely hinting at the possibility of a locked room mystery. The book could have been a brilliant and criminally forgotten impossible crime novel, but it wasn't. I took a gamble and lost, but hey, it was worth a shot. And if you actually like these social/realists crime novels (why?), you might actually enjoy this atypical crime novel.
I can't really be angry that the book didn't turn out to be one of those very rare, completely forgotten Dutch locked room mysteries, such as Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970), but I was disappointed that the story had all the material necessary to have made it a full-fledged locked room mystery with some minor tweaks to the plot. So why not end this review on positive note and pad it out with the locked room-trick I envisioned. Some very mild spoilers ahead!
Needless to say, the tightfisted Blaudop acquired an expensive watchdog to guard something on the premise and, let's say, X suspected what it was and wanted to get his hands on it, but how to get pass the locked doors, latched windows and an a hungry watchdog – because Blaudop was also very economical when it came to feeding Argus. So my idea is that X waited until Blaudop left the house to go fishing and began to carefully remove one of the windows panes and flung drugged piece of meat through the opening, which puts Argus (temporarily) to sleep. X then puts his hand through the opening to unlatch the window and enter the house to begin his search, but places a "Gone Fishing" card on the front door window to prevent any unexpected visitors from intervening. Whether, or not, the search is successful is irrelevant. X leaves the same way as he came in and replaces the window pane with fresh putty, but had forgotten to take away the "Gone Fishing" sign!
So, when Blaudop comes back, he sees the sign on his front door window and, immediately suspicious, goes inside (locking the door behind him) and finds his unconscious dog on the floor. Blaudop rushes towards the dog, but slips on some dog drool and smashes with his head against the wardrobe. The excitement and shock is too much for his heart. The red handkerchief had been carelessly dropped by X and a dying Blaudop had mindlessly picked it up to press against his bleeding head wound. And died in a perfectly locked room, or house, with the keys of the back-and front door in his pocket and evidence all around him that a second person had been present when he died. But he had been alone with his sleeping dog when it happened.
Only problem with my solution is that it effectively removed the evidence of the dog, which was vital to identity the culprit, but in my scenario you can use the fingerprints left on the "Gone Fishing" sign. Yes, not very elegant, but fits the anti detective-like approach of The Dog Was Executor.
Notes for the curious: in case you wondered, Argus survived his ten-day ordeal because there was a large aquarium in the house and the book was actually turned into TV-movie in 1974, but have been unable to locate any copies or find it anywhere online. Lastly, you can expect a new review to be posted tomorrow, because this book obviously holds no interest to 99% of people who read this blog.