Three months ago, I reviewed Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologists, 1963) by "Ton Vervoort," a penname of Peter Verstegen, who's (or was?) a Dutch author, editor and translator partial to astrology, chess and detective fiction – penning six detective novels himself during the 1960s. Murder Among Astrologists displayed the influence of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen on Vervoort's work complete with weird architecture and a dying message.Aligning your work with the Van Dine-Queen School is a high bar to clear, especially for a Dutch mystery writer in the '60s, but Vervoort cunningly pulled it off by under promising and over delivering on the plot. An all too rare quality in the Dutch-language detective story and an invitation to return sooner rather than later. So moved another one of his novels to the top of the big pile.
Moord onder de mantel der liefde (Murder Under the Mantle of Love, 1964) is the fourth title in the Inspector Floris Jansen series and gives the reader a modern take on the Golden Age serial killer story. A very odd one at that, but a genuine whodunit pull a la Agatha Christie. But despite the Anglo-American touches, it's also one of the most stereotypical Dutch detective novels I've ever come across.
Murder Under the Mantle of Love begins as a regular detective story with the narrator, Ton Vervoort, perusing the newspaper and reading about the brutal murder of "the well-known doctor, botanist and sinologist," Dr. Ed Hinke – who had his neck broken in his private study. Dr. Hinke had fallen victim to a "terrible disease," polio, which left him partial paralyzed and forced him to retire. Not merely from his medical practice and public life, but from his family as well. Only one with constant, unfettered access to the doctor is his live-in nurse, Anjo Collet. Vervoort reads that the investigation has been placed in the capable hands of Inspector Floris Jansen, of the Amsterdam police, who's an old friend of his. So it takes one phone call to secure a front row seat as his "secretary."
A practice that's not particularly popular with his colleagues and the story notes that there was "a strong animosity" against Jansen's "way of life and methods." But he can get away with it due to his "independent position" at headquarters.
Vervoort follows Jansen to Dr. Hinke's seventeenth century grachtenpand (canal house), on the Keizersgracht, where he lived with all of his immediately relatives, but they're not an ordinary family. Dr. Hinke's oldest son, Hans, is an interior decorator and a pedantic snob with an inferiority complex and posses "a stiff dose of jealousy" towards his younger brother, Maarten. A sensual, womanizing student of medicine with all the wrong friends and an abrasively liberal attitude towards euthanasia ("Hitler discredited the killing of the terminally ill and insane"), which all infuriated their sister, Daphne. She's a geologist and secular puritan who believed that "the morals of the Dutch were in a pitiful state" and passionately disapproved of her brother's openly flaunting his frivolous love life. Something else she hated is having to share the third-floor with her father's secret, long-lost Dutch-Indonesian wife, Topsy, who thought Dr. Hinke had died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp – until she came to the Netherlands. Topsy came to the house a month before the murder and she brought along the 21-year-old son Dr. Hinke had never seen, Tjallie. Lastly, there's Tanny Hinke, Hans' wife, who has a very expensive and luxurious taste and it was costing her husband a pretty penny. This really angered his father. Dr. Hinke believed "a woman should be grateful for every penny awarded to her" and getting into debt to finance her lavish lifestyle was ridiculous. And even offered to pay for the divorce.So they're practically a happy, tightly-knit and stable household, but the biggest discovery Jansen makes is that Dr. Hinke was addicted to smoking opium. Not only was Dr. Hinke smoking three, or more, pipes a day, he was growing poppies right next to the orchids in his locked attic. We have a victim who made drugs in his attic and suspects who are the flesh-and-blood incarnation of Dutch bluntness. Yes, a prostitute briefly appears as a witness during second-half of the story. I told you this was an unmistakably, bordering on stereotypical, post-war Dutch detective novel.
The murder of Dr. Hinke can be summed up as a traditional whodunit with a new coat of paint to reflect the changing times, but, around the halfway mark, the whole case is turned upside down and inside out.
Nurse Anjo confides in Jansen that she often has "predictive dreams" and had a dream-like prophecy about Dr. Hinke's murder. Before the murder, she dreamed that her employer was killed with a hammer, which is not exactly what happened, but pretty close and she continues to have strange, predictive dreams throughout the second-half of the story – revealing an active serial killer in Amsterdam! A killer preying on invalids who had become embittered with "nothing more to expect from life." These serial murders take the police out of the original crime scene and scatter them across the city which, especially to non-Dutch readers, can come across as a sight-seeing tour of Amsterdam.
A gallery attendant at the Rijksmuseum, who lost all his fingers in an accident with a cutting machine, unexpectedly drops dead among the museum visitors. An invalid with a cigarette-and-candy cart on the boisterous, rowdy Zeedijk is found dead by a window prostitute and a third dream has the police scouring all the cafes in the city for a man with a seeing-eye dog. All of them are poisoned with an uncommon, difficult to trace substance.
So the story moves away from a modern whodunit with a closed-circle of suspects to parapsychological manhunt for not only a serial killer, but the prospective victims with the last murder being somewhat of a tragedy. Just like with Murder Among Astrologists, I began to wonder how Vervoort was going to tie everything together satisfactory as his loose storytelling and small page-count didn't quite promise a neo-Golden Age detective story. What seemed to make the most sense was that Dr. Hinke had, somehow, distributed the poison and someone killed him to put a stop to it, which turned out to be wrong, but it did put me on the right track. Vervoort ended up doing something completely different with the motive, how the murders were carried out and kind of liked how he spun a complications out of inconvenient alibis, accidental clues and vanishing red herrings – some being better and clearer than others. But, on a whole, it made for a good and unusual Dutch detective story.
Only thing that can be said against Murder Under the Mantle of Love is the same as about Murder Among Astrologists. Vervoort had some good and clever ideas, some were even inspired, but he had too light a style, or touch, to utilize them to their full potential. So it doesn't fully measure up to its Anglo-American counterparts.
Nonetheless, it was quite impressive that Vervoort managed to tell two different types of detective stories in his light style with a small page-count, but still managed to link them together with a logical, inevitable solution that didn't feel like a letdown. Vervoort evidently knew what makes a plot tick and wish he had continued writing detective novels, because half a dozen is hardly enough to keep me satisfied. I need more Dutch detective writers like Vervoort!
So his remaining detective novels, Moord onder toneelspelers (Murder Among Stage Actors, 1963), Moord onder maagden (Murder Among Virgins, 1965) and Moord op toernee (Murder on Tour, 1965), have been bumped to the top of my wishlist. I'm also looking into the few short stories he wrote. Such as "Burleske aan de galg" ("Burlesque on the Gallows," 1965) and "Het alibi" ("The Alibi," 1968). Wordt vervolgd!