Previously, I looked at a little-known Dutch detective novel, W.H. van Eemlandt's Dood in schemer (Death in Half-Light, 1954), which takes place during a scientific expedition to a remote island to observe a solar eclipse and there was another Dutch mystery on the big pile with an alternative, cosmological-themed plot – contrasting beautifully with Death in Half-Light. Additionally, the covers of both editions suggested it was a detective story with a dying message.
Peter Verstegen was a Dutch editor, translator and writer who played chess, studied astrology and wrote detective novels under the name "Ton Vervoort."
Between 1962 and 1965, Verstegen penned a handful of novel featuring a dandy, educated policeman, named Floris Jansen, and his close friend and narrator, Tom Vervoort, which together with the title-structure of the series (Murder Among [...]) betrays he aligned himself with S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen – particularly their more surrealistic work. Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologists, 1963) is the third title in the Floris Jansen series and strongly reminded me of the Ellery-in-Wonderland novels like There Was An Old Woman (1943) and The Player on the Other Side (1963). A zany detective story complete with eccentric, crackpot characters, bizarre architecture and a stronger ending than you would expect from the first half of the story.
Christiaan Zoutman is a millionaire art collector and a staunch defender of "the oldest of the sciences," but nobody takes astrology serious in the Netherlands and even in enlightened France they're being laughed at. So he has began to device experiments in order to convince the scientific community of the value of astrology and intends to carry them out according "the strictest objective standards," which is not exactly what transpired. More on that later.
For his first experiment, Zoutman invited ten astrologists of very diverse backgrounds to his villa, in Bloemendaal, where they have to observe each others for a few days to identity everyone's astrological sign. Zoutman reasons a higher than 10% accuracy should give the Royal Academy of Sciences some food for thought.
Ton Vervoort's name is becoming well-known as Floris Jansen's biographer and the cover of Moord onder studenten (Murder Among Students, 1962) stated he was involved in astrology, which likely earned him an invitation, but he's not adverse to either a holiday in Bloemendaal or the 500 gulden (about 1400 euros today) as an expense allowance – gladly accepts the millionaire's generous invitation. Vervoort knows Zoutman is "one of the rare, colorful figures of the Dutch beau monde" with an equally colorful history, but his villa quickly begins to resemble a lunatic asylum with his guests acting as the inmates.
Villa Les 500 Merveilles, Bloemendaal, is an indescribable, modern monstrosity that rested on "iron columns that crisscrossed the different rooms" and there's no inner staircase to the bedrooms on the second floor, which can only be reached by an ornate iron staircase in the garden (imagine going to bed that way in the dead of winter). Second floor has no hallways and every bedroom door opens on a basalt walkway looking out over large garden filled with ponds, hedges and statues of nymphs, fauns, naiads and Bacchuses. One enormous hedge was cut like a "lying nude." A fitting setting for what's going to happen next, but it should also be mentioned that the villa houses Zoutman's 85 million gulden (about 240 million euros today) modern art collection.
The astrologists, amateurs, professional and two additional people, Zoutman has gathered at his home comprises of a young, beautiful widow, Margareta Vlijn, who's a woman of few words and can drink like a man. An amorous and jealous Spaniard, Alberto Gonzales, who's not the only man present to meet his match in Margareta. Herman Staal is a masseur who juggles his believe in astrology with being a born-again Christian. Mrs. Pietsie Tromp is a professional astrologist who spends her nights astral projecting among the stars, Catharina Dwarshuis is a South African painter who brought with her the dark arts of that continent and Boudewijn Scheps is teacher of classic languages. Theo Dopheide is a long-time, skeptical friend of Zoutman who's initiated the challenge and Eduard Dogger is a representative of the press. A late addition to the party is a rich industrialist, Wijnand Paauw, who makes all his business decisions according his astrological charts. Lastly, there's the elderly, infirm mother of their host, Mrs. Zoutman, who looks like "a living cadaver" and our narrator, Ton Vervoort.
So they're all let loose on the estate, and Bloemdaal, but the experiment is everything but scientific and most of the first half is a string of incidents involving nudism, heavy drinking, voodoo rituals, religious mania, botched rendezvous, fights and loopy, pseudo-scientific discussions – which lowered my expectations considerably. I fully expected to have to write another tepid review of an amusing, unchallenging mystery novel, but that all began to slowly change around the halfway mark.
Vervoort is drummed out of bed with the news that the burglar-alarm had been disabled and the lion's share of the paintings had been removed through a cut-out window, but, when they go to tell Zoutman, they find him sitting behind his desk with a knife in his chest. And with his dying strength, Zoutman had traced a symbol on his desk: two vertical stripes, next to each other, with an unfinished, horizontal stripe above it. The astrological sign gemini? A dying clue to his murderer?
Bloemendaal Police has very little-experience with multi-million gulden burglaries and coldblooded murder. So they agree to let Vervoort call in his friend of the Central Police in Amsterdam, Inspector Floris Jansen, whose investigation is as loose and lighthearted as the opening chapters, which also didn't help me prepare for the splendidly done ending. Jansen's interviews everyone involved, but he doesn't drag-the-marshes and the interviews can be so weird Jansen has to ask Vervoort if there's a madhouse nearby. A few lines did made me chuckle a little.
Tromp: "Did you hear? I've reached the Solid Star!"
Jansen: "That's wonderful. But did you noticed anything about the
burglary last night?"
Good god. The ending did not match the fast and loose, sometimes satirical, storytelling and didn't notice how much of a pure, neo-Golden Age detective Murder Among Astrologists really was until Jansen arrested the murderer. Something that at first came as an anti-climax.
I figured this person had to be murderer and had a good idea about the motive, but then Vervoort pulled the rug from underneath my feet and effectively turned the obvious murderer into the least-likely-suspect! When the rug was pulled away, I discovered what had been hidden right under my nose. The identification of the murderer demolished an original alibi-trick and revealed a second murder with a much more detailed motive than I imagined, which is cleverly tied to a criminal scheme concerning the stolen paintings and the simple, uncomplicated dying message – a splendid double-edged clue. You can easily deduce from that the solution that Vervoort was as much influenced by early period Ellery Queen as their later, much weirder detective novels. I also appreciated that the end of the zodiac experiment showed Vervoort could crack a joke at his own expense.
Only thing that can be said against Murder Among Astrologists is that the detection is not as focused as it could have been or the clueing as sharp as it should have been, which makes it a second-string mystery by American or British standards, but the ambitious ending places it far above the average detective novel of the time. I loved how perfectly it contrasted with my previous read. Death in Half-Light over promised and under delivered. Murder Among Astrologists under promised and over delivered. I couldn't have asked for more from what really was nothing more than a gamble.
A note for the curious: Murder Among Astrologists is part of an unfinished, collaborative series of detective novels, entitled “Zodiac Mysteries,” which was intended to count twelve novels from as many different Dutch detective-and thriller writers – each novel centering on an astrological sign. Supposedly, Robert van Gulik was going to contribute a novel to the Zodiac Mysteries, but the series was abandoned after eight novels.
Bert Japin's Een kwestie van leeuwen of dood (an untranslatable pun, 1963)
Ton Vervoort's Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologists, 1963)
Rico Bulthuis' Het maagdenspel (The Virgin Game, 1964)
John Hoogland's Wat een geschutter (What a Shooting, 1964)
Louis de Lentdecker's Horens voor de stier (Horns for the Bull, 1964)
Bob van Oyen's IJsvogel en de schorpioen (IJsvogel and the Scorpion, 1964)
Yves van Domber's Een schim in de weegschaal (A Shadow in the Scales, 1965)
B.J. Kleymens' In de greep van de kreeft (In the Grip of Cancer, 1965)