“Dutch Treats” (by René Appel)

René Appel was a professor of Dutch as a second language at the University of Amsterdam until 2003. But he has been writing fiction since the 1970s, a decade in which his output was mostly short stories for literary magazines. In 1987, he moved into the mystery genre with the publication of his first psychological-thriller novel, Handicap. Since then he has produced a new crime novel nearly every year. Two of the books were winners of the Golden Noose Award from the Dutch Society of Crime Writers: De derde persoon (The Third Person) in 1991 and Zinloos geweld (Random Violence) in 2001. René has also written two children’s books, three collections of short stories, a series of radio plays, three scripts (for TV and film), and a theater play. Several of his short stories have been translated into English, including two that appeared in EQMM. His bestselling thriller novel Schone handen (Clean Hands) is the basis for a feature film that was released just last month. In this post, however, René talks not about his own extensive body of work but about the history and development of the crime-fiction genre in his native land.—Janet Hutchings

The Netherlands is famous for painters like Rembrandt van Rijn, Vincent van Gogh, and William de Kooning, for Amsterdam and its canals, for the fact that half the country (protected by dunes and dykes) is below sea level, for the easy availability of soft drugs, for the mills and the wooden shoes (hardly anybody wears them anymore), for Gouda cheese, and so on. But unfortunately, my country is not well-known for its crime writers. The reason may lie in the facts that the production of Dutch crime novels started relatively late and that, for a long time, thrillers had a low status as a literary genre in The Netherlands—an issue to which I will return later.

The first Dutch crime story was published in 1900, which was rather late, especially compared to Great Britain. P. Tesselhoff, Jr.’s The Detective’s Success was a traditional police story: a corpse, a detective, a few suspects, and finally the solution. From that beginning, this kind of crime novel became dominant in The Netherlands. The most important authors were Ivans and Havank, who each wrote more than thirty books. Perhaps it is significant that both of them used a pseudonym.

Robert van Gulik published a series of crime novels more or less based on traditional Chinese stories and featuring Judge Dee, the first one in 1957. Van Gulik, who was a diplomat in the Far East, wrote them in English because he wanted as many readers as possible. He is one of the few Dutch writers who have been published in English, and some of his books (such as The Chinese Gold Murders) are still available. His stories are rather slow, which perhaps explains why they’re not popular today; they don’t fit the fast lane of modern life.

For a long time, the most popular Dutch crime writer was an Amsterdam police officer, Appie Baantjer, who—starting in 1963—wrote seventy novels with Inspector De Cock as a rather old-fashioned detective. Baantjer often published two books a year, and many people in The Netherlands bought only two books a year—both of them by Baantjer. Efforts to publish Baantjer’s novels in the USA (with, for obvious reasons, another name for inspector De Cock) have not been successful.

The Dutch author who has had the most success in the United States to date was Janwillem van de Wetering. Outsider in Amsterdam, his first book featuring police detectives Grijpstra and de Gier, was published in 1975. Van de Wetering lived for many years in Maine and wrote his books in English, subsequently translating them himself into Dutch. (A number of his short stories were published in EQMM in the ’80s, and one—“There Goes Ravelaar,” translated by Josh Pachter—was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Best Short Story Edgar in 1986).

New types of crime novels were introduced in the ’60s and ’70s, and one author, Joop van de Broek, can be considered the precursor of this “new” crime writing with the publication of Parels voor Nadra (Pearls for Nadra). Following foreign examples, authors said goodbye to the traditional pattern of the whodunit with its “decent” murders and civilized detectives. Their books became more realistic and hardboiled, introducing social aspects or political issues. For example, Gerben Hellinga (initially writing under the name Hellinger; there was still at that time a preference for pseudonyms) introduced Sid Stefan as his main character in Dollars (1963). Stefan was an ex-con who’d been convicted of murder. He was fond of beautiful women, traveled a lot in different European countries, and got mixed up in a criminal case.

The type of crime literature known as faction also became popular, especially through the work of Tomas Ross. (This was another pseudonym, based on the name of the American crime writer Ross Thomas. The story goes that an employee at the Dutch publisher got the name wrong and mistakenly deleted the h from Thomas.) In his more than thirty novels, Ross generally takes a hot issue out of the headlines; for example, one of his books is about Prince Bernhard (now deceased, but then alive and married to our Queen Juliana), who was mixed up in a corruption affair concerning the buying of Lockheed airplanes by KLM, the Dutch national airline. Ross filled in the unknown or hidden facts in order to create an interesting story full of suspense.

Today, the landscape of Dutch crime writing is varied:

  • More or less traditional crime stories are still published, with hardboiled thrillers dominating the market. Social and political issues are addressed, violence and horror scenes are not absent, serial killers are common. (Think of such Scandinavian authors as Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson, or the American Karin Slaughter.)
  • Quite a few authors follow in the footsteps of Tomas Ross. One example is Roel Janssen, who wrote a book about the gold bars stolen by the Germans during the WWII occupation of The Netherlands.
  • Charles den Tex has introduced the “corporate thriller” to The Netherlands. In his Bellicher Trilogy, management consultant Michael Bellicher is “immersed in conspiracies, identity theft and surveillance systems in an era in which internet technology and age-old crimes converge” (according to Barry Forshaw in Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film & TV).
  • Psychological thrillers have become very popular. In the ’80s, I wrote my first books in this subgenre, inspired by the work of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. But in the first decades of this century a new wave of female authors is responsible for many bestsellers, beginning with Saskia Noorts’ Terug naar de kust (Back to the Coast) in 2003. In addition to Saskia Noort, the most important authors in this category are Esther Verhoef, Simone van der Vlugt and Marion Pauw. (Van der Vlugt’s novel Blauw water has been translated into English as Safe as Houses.) Their books are often labeled “literary thrillers.”

The mainstream “literary world” in The Netherlands has come to resent this label, and has in turn developed a negative attitude toward crime fiction in general. You’ll often come across comments such as “What are they thinking, these writers of thrillers and detective stories? They produce fiction without literary value, without any impact on the mind of the readers, without addressing philosophical or psychological themes, written in a simple style.” Such comments reinforce the boundary between high and low culture.

This attitude has in turn negatively influenced the position of crime writers in The Netherlands, and has had an impact on people who feel an ambition to write. If you want to be taken “seriously” as a writer in my country, you would be stupid to start writing crime fiction.

Recently, though, this has begun to change, perhaps because of the fact that some of the “literary thrillers” by Saskia Noort and others have become major bestsellers—in some cases selling over 150,000 copies, which is quite a lot in a small country like The Netherlands, with its just under 17 million inhabitants. The success of these thrillers has provoked jealous reactions from the so-called “literary” writers.

In addition to the books written in The Netherlands, there are also many Belgian authors who write in Dutch, such as Jef Geeraerts (recently deceased), Pieter Aspe, and Bavo Dhooge. Perhaps an EQMM blog about crime writing in Belgium would also be interesting.

As I said in the beginning, it has been difficult for Dutch crime writers to succeed in the English-speaking market. We have, however, found a promising foothold: Over the last decade, such Dutch authors as Theo Capel, Michael Berg, Carla Vermaat, and myself have seen our short stories appear in EQMM’s “Passport to Crime” department. We hope you’ve enjoyed—and will continue to enjoy—these tasty “Dutch treats” from across the Atlantic.

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3 Responses to “Dutch Treats” (by René Appel)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    Belgium last week and The Netherlands this week? Be still, my heart! Thanks, Rene, for a fascinating look at Dutch mystery history!….

  2. What an interesting post. Thanks especially for reminding everyone about Robert van Gulik. I discovered the Judge Dee books in an old library years ago: strongly plotted, with wonderful characters, these books deserve a much wider readership.

  3. V.S. Kemanis says:

    Bedankt! Where would you place Koch’s “The Dinner”? Not strictly a crime novel, but a heinous crime at its center, plenty of suspense, and all of the philosophical, psychological, and social themes that, as you mentioned, are demanded by the literary highbrows.

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