Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact (2022) by P. Dieudonné

P. Dieudonné's Rechercheur De Klerck en een dodelijk pact (Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact, 2022) is the seventh case for those two Rotterdam police inspectors, Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver, who find themselves this time slowly being edged towards pulp territory – culminating into one of their most bizarre cases to date. This is what makes the series so fun to read as Dieudonné tries to introduce something different or new to the formula of the Dutch politieroman (police novel) the late A.C. Baantjer created, which tends to be a little different and more straightforward than the Anglo detective story. So you rarely, if ever, get familiar tropes like isolated crime scenes, dying messages or locked room murders in a Dutch police novel. That certainly is not the case with this series.

For example, Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020) strings together no less than three impossible crimes, while Rechercheur De Klerck en moord in scène (Inspector De Klerck and Murder on the Scene, 2021) imported a heavily leaded slice of Urban Americana as camouflage for a classical and theatrically-staged whodunit. The previous entry in the series, Rechercheur De Klerck en het duistere web (Inspector De Klerck and the Dark Web, 2022), tumbled down the rabbit hole of internet conspiracies and has a victim who left a dying message written in blood. So it was only a matter of time before the series would produce an authentic piece of, what I like to call, oranje pulp (orange pulp). 

Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact begins normally enough as De Klerck's goes to work and overhears two people, a man and woman, talking on the metro. They're obviously colleagues on their way to work and De Klerck hears them speak disparagingly of two men from work, Lammert ("...hopping around like he owns the business") and Huub ("they can drink his blood") – described respectively as "een koele kikker" ("a cold frog") and "een opgeblazen kikker" ("a puffed frog"). Which translates to one being cold and calculating while the other believes he's the male equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. So nothing particular worrying as De Klerck merely overheard two people complaining about people they know from work, but the frogs come back into the picture when he arrives at the police station.

Several days ago, Paulien Captein reported her husband, Hubèrt Captein, missing and he still hasn't returned home to her and their two children over the weekend. It turns out Hubèrt Captein is Huub who owns and runs a sporting goods store, Capteins Passie voor Sport. De Klerck guesses correctly their marriage is not nearly as good as Paulien wants him to believe and learns from his employees he has "an insatiable, obsessive need for female flesh." Still a normal and pretty routine disappearance case, but then De Klerck and Klaver receive the news that a corpse is sitting on the bank of the Meidoornsingel.

The body of the man "sat on the bank with his back bent, arms wrapped around his body and chin resting on his chest" while "his legs hung over the stone facing in the gray water" and his eyes were closed. A small, bright blue frog with black dots was placed on the top of his head! Curiously, they were both frozen solid without any marks of violence or traces of drugs or poison. And the theatrical staging requires "the involvement of at least two perpetrators, possibly even three." Since a body, "frozen to the bone," is far too heavy to be handled by one person alone.

This is not the last time De Klerck and Klaver come across a corpse, frozen in sitting position, chilling on the bank of a canal with a bright, hellish blue frog on their heads – as their investigation takes on increasingly bizarre proportions. Why had every victim a number tattooed on their body? What is the significance of the nursery rhyme? Is there a link between the murders and the seven deadly sins or Dante's Divine Comedy? There's even an appropriately bizarre, but brilliantly executed, impossible situation taking place in the background of the story. A witness comes to De Klerck claiming to have seen one of the people concerned in his investigation entering a beautiful chalet with white, plaster shutters and lights burning behind the windows. However, when they go to the location, the Swiss-style chalet has mysteriously disappeared! You locked room and impossible crime maniacs know that the problem with impossibly vanishing rooms, houses and even whole streets is their limitations in the number of possible solutions, but Dieudonné came up with something a little different here. Something perfectly suited for the pulp-style plot and put to excellent use by De Klerck ("een kunstgreep") to ensnare the killers. It's easily my favorite part of the book and a reminder I really need to update the list of Dutch-language locked room mysteries one of these days.

I missed this until I began writing the review, but Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact is not only Dieudonné's take on the good, old-fashioned pulps of yesteryear. It's also a nod and wink at Baantjer's own attempt at writing a thoroughly weird, pulp-style mystery novel, De Cock en de naakte juffer (DeKok and the Naked Lady, 1978). You only have to look at the cover to get an idea how weird that book turned out to be. The book was the twelfth DeKok novel (officially numbered 14 because the publisher added two in-universe novels to the series) and Baantjer celebrated the occasion with a dozen murders. Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact, seventh entry in the series, has the number seven stamped all over its plot.

Regrettably, DeKok and the Naked Lady is not only Baantjer's weirdest mystery novel, but also one of his weakest and the cheat ending would likely anger me, if encountered today. Dieudonné fared a lot better than his illustrious predecessor in bringing together the Dutch politieroman and pulp fiction. Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact is not, what you can call, classically clued as it omitted some of the plot-polish and kept one, or two, details deliberately vague (ROT13: jung, rknpgyl, unccrarq gb gur obql bs gur zvffvat zna?) to give it that authentic pulp feeling. So you can only make an educated guess as to who's behind the murders and motive with the how being the strongest element, detective storywise, of the plot, but there's a kind of a silly hint pointing into the direction of one of the culprits. You really have to read the book as a piece of pulp fiction with all its strong points (imaginative plots, bizarre murders and elaborate tricks) and weak spots (often faintly clued). I suppose not every reader will be as picky, in my country, when it comes to such things.

So, while not the strongest plotted title in the series, Inspector De Klerck and a Deadly Pact is yet another very well written, highly readable and enjoyable entry in the series. Dieudonné and De Klerck have truly emerged from the shadows of Baantjer and DeKok to stands on its own as something both almost nostalgically familiar and distinctly different. This series is an example of how you can build on the rich past to create something new for the future. I very much look forward what the direction eighth title will take.

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