“A Belgian Mystery (Solved by Poirot Himself)” (By Hilde Vandermeeren)

Hilde Vandermeeren, a psychologist and former teacher, had authored some forty books for children (winning numerous literary prizes for them) before she wrote her first crime novel, When Darkness Fell, in 2013—and it won the Hercule Poirot Public (or “Readers”) Award.  A second thriller, The Witnesses, followed in 2014, and a third, Quiet Ground, in May 2015. The author’s EQMM debut is coming soon, in our March/April 2016 double issue. In this post Hilde discusses some of the obstacles women writers face in the field of crime fiction in her native Belgium.—Janet Hutchings

Belgium is a small country in Europe with three official languages: Dutch (Flemish), French, and German. It is well known for its chocolate, fries, and . . . the lack of female Flemish crime writers.

In my opinion, as a psychologist and a female Flemish crime writer myself, that last issue is worth some consideration. What are we talking about? In statistical terms: At this moment there are approximately forty male Flemish crime writers (more or less active) and only a handful of female colleagues. For the crime writers and readers among us: This smells like an interesting mystery that asks to be solved. Because my position—as an enthusiastic female Flemish crime writer—is not neutral, I called for help. And two wonderful characters created by Agatha Christie, who accompanied me during my teenage years, agreed to help solve this mystery. So I’m pleased to introduce the ingenious Hercule Poirot (a Belgian detective!) with his petites cellules grises* and the amazing Miss Marple.

We meet during teatime in a cosy pub in St. Mary Mead (England) and Hercule Poirot is using a white handkerchief to clean his chair before he sits down. Miss Marple has a very friendly smile when she arrives, but when we shake hands she says to me: “You seem to be nervous, Hilde.”

“Indeed I am, Miss Marple. I’ve never met two of my literary idols before.”

“Two?” mumbles Poirot. “There’s only one genius at this table.”

Miss Marple is wise enough to sit down without saying a word.

Poirot folds his hands, closes his eyes, and asks what exactly we’re dealing with. I tell them about the new case: The current lack of female Flemish crime writers.

“That’s not our problem,” says Poirot and he starts to rise. “And it’s absolutely not a matter of public interest.”

“My dear Hercule,” says Miss Marple, “it definitely is our problem. And it’s also a matter of public interest.”

“In what way?” asks Poirot.

“If Agatha Christie, our literary mum, had not had the opportunity to publish as a female British crime writer, then your petites cellules grises would never have impressed anyone.”

Poirot remains seated and takes a sip from his sirop de cassis before directing a flood of questions at me.

“How many female Flemish crime writers have appeared on TV programs over the past few years? I mean, other than local shows.”

“I think hardly any,” I say.

“But male Flemish crime writers did?”

“Only the famous few.”

“How many female Flemish crime writers have been interviewed by the press—I mean, besides the local press?”

“Again, barely any.”

“How many books by female Flemish crime writers have been adapted for screen?”

“As far as I know, not a single one.”

Thoughtfully, Poirot drinks from his sirop de cassis.

“How are people to know that female Flemish writers exist if the Flemish press doesn’t give them a voice? It’s a vicious circle,” he says.

“There are two Flemish awards for crime writers,” I say. “The first is the Hercule Poirot Award.”

“What’s in a name,” says Poirot.

“And the other is the Diamond Bullet (also open for Dutch crime writers),” I continue. “Winning such an award can really launch the carrier of a female Flemish crime writer.”

“Don’t make me laugh, my dear,” says Miss Marple. “I did a little research after you called me and what I found shocked me.”

“Tell me all about it, Miss Marple,” says Poirot.

“So far only 15.3 percent of the winners of the Diamond Bullet are female, and the Hercule Poirot Award does even worse: So far only 11.7 percent of the winners are female.”

“Seen statistically, since there are fewer female than male Flemish crime writers, it’s not surprising that the percentage of awards given them would be lower,” says Poirot. “But not that low, quelle horreur.”

“We are not totally without a chance,” I say. “In 2013 I was the only woman nominated for the Hercule Poirot Award and I won the Knack Hercule Poirot Public Award (a prize awarded by the public for the best Flemish thriller novel).”

“But in 2014 something strange happened,” says Miss Marple. “That year not a single woman was nominated for the short lists of either Flemish award: Ten male crime writers were nominated versus zero female ones.”

“Yes, it was that year that I honestly thought of giving up crime writing,” I say, “with no prospects at all as a female crime writer in Flanders. And besides, nobody cares.”

“I do,” says Poirot. “You mustn’t give up, Hilde. You are the first female Flemish crime writer who’ll publish a short story in EQMM. As a role model, you make us proud.”

“I heard something else that bothers me,” says Miss Marple. “It’s well known that most crime readers are female, but in Flanders all the important crime reviewers are male, is that correct?”

“Yes, and the members of the juries for the two major Flemish crime awards are also almost exclusively male.”

“I thought the Victorian Era had passed,” says Poirot.

“Conclusion: Female Flemish crime writers have too little support and face too many obstacles,” says Miss Marple.

“The mystery is solved, but the problem is not,” says Poirot.

“Thanks for the help,” I say. “It was really nice meeting you. Since my teenage years both of you have inspired me to write crime fiction.”

I tell Poirot how I cried all evening long, as a fourteen-year-old girl, after I finished Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case.

“Don’t be sad,” Poirot says. “People like me—I mean, people like Miss Marple and me—are immortal.”

“I know,” I say.

“So, Hilde, this is not a farewell,” says Miss Marple. “Some day we’ll meet again.”

She gives me a hug.

“Let us know when you receive one of the major awards, when your crime novels are translated, or when one of your stories is adapted to screen,” she says.

Instead of a hug Poirot gives me some thoughtful advice.

“Do what my petites cellules grises always do, Hilde: Never give up. Not even if there are a lot of obstacles in your way.”

I promise them to do so and there I’m standing, outside that pub in St. Mary Mead, waving them goodbye for a long time after they have already disappeared.

* little grey cells
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