22 July 2008

REVIEW: DEATH OF A HAWKER by Janwillem van de Wetering

1977, Soho Press, 262 pages

It is riot time in Amsterdam again. It is summer and there are screaming mobs, flying bricks, howling fanatics, exploding gas grenades, soapstone powder, bleeding faces, and the sirens of ambulances and police vehicles. Esther Rogge rings the police station to say that her brother Abe is dead on the floor and his head is all bloody.
The nearest police are on the other side of the riots and it takes Detective Sergeant de Gier and Adjutant Grijpstra nearly an hour to get to her, largely on foot. It appears that the dead man has been killed by a round object studded with spikes that has smashed every bone in his face. But neither his sister not the upstairs lodger heard anything before discovering his body. They of course are the prime suspects but neither appear to be likely murderers.

The dead man was known as the King of the Albert Cuyp street market, a dealer in beads, cloth, and haberdashery, and their search for his enemies take de Gier and Grijpstra into a disconcerting, for de Gier at least, world of prostitutes and market stalls. There will be one more death before they finally work out who killed Abe Rogge.

This is #4 in van de Wetering's Amsterdam Cops series, and the first that I have read. The investigation is led by a commissaris plagued wuth rheumatics. "A policeman is a hunter" says the commissaris. "We observe, connect, conclude and apprehend", he says, as he tries to instruct both de Gier and Grijpstra in the art of good detection.

This is the first of this series that I have read. The style is very different to modern police procedurals, with more in common with Glauser and Simenon. There are little background snippets, like the reasons for the riots, the man who has a heart attack and drops dead in the hospital emergency waiting room, the two thousand guilders that become saturated by a cup of coffee accidentally tipped into the cash box, de Gier's nightmares, Gripjstra's liaison with the prostitute Nellie, and the seething mass of toads on the road near the canal bank, that all add atmosphere.

My rating 4.4

A couple of days ago I invited people to pose me a question related to my reading.

Peter over at Detectives Beyond Borders asked:
What influence do you think Janwillem van de Wetering's experience and training in Zen Buddhism had on his crime writing? What influence do you think his police experience had?

Evidence of Zen Buddhism
I am not sure what I am looking for here. Perhaps it surfaced in the way Grijpstra thought about what caused the violence in Amsterdam - "Amsterdam, by its tolerance for unconventional behavior, attracts crazy people....Crazy people are special people. They carry the country's genius, its urge to create, to find new ways." Or perhaps in the character of the upstairs lodger Louis Zilver who says "Life is short. Seize the day, and all that."
Zilver and Grijpstra discuss the role of the police. Grijpstra says it is the role of the police to protect the people from themselves. Zilver says public order comes from sheer boredom, a heavy weight that throttles the citizen. Perhaps the Zen Buddhism is surfacing in the mere discussion of issues like this.
When an informant is murdered the commissaris blames himself, saying he may as well have murdered her himself.

Evidence of his police experience.
This one is a little easier. There is a focus in the story on the police hierarchy which is footnoted for the reader's benefit at least twice. We are told "The ranks of the Dutch municipal police are constable, constable first class, sergeant, adjutant, inspector, chief inspector, commissaris, chief constable." The pecking order determines who is allowed to give orders to whom. The story gives us a strong idea of how the police system works.


Peter Rozovsky said...

You did a good job picking up on what makes Van de Wetering's writing unusual. Glauser and Simenon are not bad comparisons, and Van de Wetering has said he decided to try to write crime novels after reading Simenon to learn French, and seeing if he could write better that Simenon.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Kerrie said...

But did I come up with the answers you were expecting Peter?

Peter Rozovsky said...

More or less, but with some interesting spins, as with your mentions of Glauser or Simenon.

To my mind, the Zen comes in principally in Grijpstra and de Gier's frequent observations about and even acceptance of the world that surrounds them, and you gave good examples of that.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Anne H said...

I love these books and also the short stories featuring Gripstra and de Gier. The Commissaris is a lovingly portrayed character I've always been attracted to. As for the Zen aspect, it's unmistakably there in the conversations between the two main detectives and the slant on life conveyed.


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