DEKOK AND THE SORROWING TOMCAT by Baantjer (1969)

Revered in The Netherlands (and translated into several languages), this series of mysteries by ex-policeman Albert Cornelis Baantjer featured Inspector Jurrian De Cock and his sidekick Dick Vledder and appeared at a rate of roughly two a year from 1963 to 2008 for an impressive total of some seventy cases. I picked up this book (originally published in 1969 as De Cock en de treurende kater) at the urging of TomCat, the blogosphere’s own prowling mouser and master of Beneath the Stains of Time. This translation by H.G. Smittenaar appeared in 1993 and, as is customary for the US editions, the protagonist’s name has been spelled ‘DeKok’, presumably for reasons of decorum. It begins with the discovery of a body, stabbed in the back …

One of my resolutions for 2013 is to review as many of the books kindly recommended by fellow bloggers as I possibly can. I decided to get the ball rolling with this volume because I’m a cat person and also to repay a longstanding debt to moonlight detective TC. I also submit this review as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott over at her Pattinase blog but which today is hosted by Evan Lewis over at Davy Crocket’s Almanack of Mystery – you should head there right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.

“De Cock was an old-fashioned cop, a ‘hands on’ policeman”

Some of my best friends are Dutch but so far I have only visited The Netherlands a couple of times and never got much further than Amsterdam and the immediate vicinities. Therefore it’s probably fair to say that my limited knowledge has been bolstered and coloured by exposure to the fictional representations of directors Dick Maas and Paul Verhoeven and the ‘Van der Valk’ novels by British writer Nicholas Freeling (as well as the TV adaptations from decades ago, also British, starring Barry Foster ). But this book in the De Cock series is much more like the real thing finally – a Dutch crime novel written by a former policeman – and very welcome it is too, not least providing a look at the enclosed Dutch society as it was at the tail end of the 1960s.

“… the chief was constantly irritated by De Cock’s irreverent attitude to authority. But he was also keenly aware that De Cock was the most successful detective on the force. He always solved his cases”

Baantjer-Dekok-and-the-Sorrowing-TomcatLike Nicholas Rhea (a pseudonym for Peter Walker), Joseph Wambaugh and John Wainwright, Baantjer was a serving policeman who eventually turned to writing fiction based on his own experiences (this is now a major category of crime writers – for details on some of the hundreds of police officers turned writers, visit: http://police-writers.com). Based on this volume one is immediately struck by the fact that, while entertaining, it feels intrinsically lightweight when compared with the works of the other authors here cited. It certainly has none of the political dimensions to be found in the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the seedy realism of Wainwright nor the deep characterisation of the Maigret books by Simenon; and certainly none of the playful genre-splitting that we associate with Ed McBain. What we have instead is a very traditional, very straightforward police procedural in which De Cock, with his crumpled hat and disdain for modern police methods, comes across as a clear descendent of the Sherlock Holmes school of great detectives. The book opens in fact with the man at his grumpiest, like Holmes and Poirot before him on edge because he hasn’t had a meaty case in ages – which then duly arrives with the death of ‘Cunning’ Pete, low-level blackmailer and con man, and the theft of $3m from an armoured car belonging to the B&G insurance company.

“… he and his faithful dog, a sad-looking boxer with a worried face, had gone for a long walk. The dog looked as if it was doing most of the thinking for De Cock, but was mainly interested in the trees in the park …”

Right away the theft seems suspicious as the amounts transported are usually much lower than that. It then emerges that ‘Cunning’ Pete was trying to turn a new leaf under pressure from his girlfriend Flossie and had contacted the company to warn them that a heist was being planned. Having found a connection between the two cases, De Cock and Vledder find obstruction both from Pete’s criminal friends (and Flossie, who wants to exact her own revenge) and the directors of the insurance company, who were the only ones that knew that the amount of cash being transported was going to be well above the norm. And then there is the eponymous cat, or several in fact, which provides the crucial clue even though De Cock is very much a dog person …

“But what can the matter be?”

DeCock-en-de-treurende-katerThe plot works its way fairly logically and predictably (the main suspect winds up dead in the trunk of a car about three-quarters of the way through) but there is plenty of humour and there is much to enjoy in reading a book set in an unfamiliar environment. The prose style is simple, functional and unadorned, full of commonplace phrases and observations that are doubtless true to life. What grates here though is the translation by H.G. Smittenaar, which tries in a poor fashion to make the unfamiliar known to us, fails to find real equivalents for Dutch phrases and speech rhythms (much of it ends up sounding like ‘Yoda speak,’ with the verb tacked on at the end instead of between subject and object as in the quote above) and then tries unsuccessfully to update the text. The latter was done presumably purely for commercial reasons in that the book made it into English only a quarter of a century from its original appearance in Dutch, but is done in a very confused way. On the one hand we get footnotes to explain unnecessary things like the meaning of ‘Commisaris’ and ‘Femme Fatale’, which have not been translated, while we also get complete changes to the text to update it. At one point in the first chapter we get a whole paragraph comparing the police station to the one in the TV show Hill Street Blues – which went on the air a full decade after the book originally came out. Presumably Baantjer had in the original included a cultural reference that now seemed too ‘foreign’ and out of date, but this alternative is very jarring when a simple footnote could have dealt with it easily. The result is a minor irritant but infuriating none the less and it does the book (and the intelligent reader) a real disservice. Perhaps the real TomCat could let us know what the original actually said …

For a complete list of the books in the De Cock series (albeit, in Dutch) visit the seemingly accurate Wikipedia page here. And thanks again to TC for suggesting this highly enjoyable read.

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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28 Responses to DEKOK AND THE SORROWING TOMCAT by Baantjer (1969)

  1. Sergio – I can see how that Hill Street Blues reference would have pulled the reader out of the story. It just goes to show one how very important a good translation is. Pity too because the story itself sounds interesting and I always like it when the author includes some humour. I am glad to hear there were some things to like about this one.

    • Thanks Margot. I will definitely read more of these, not least because TomCat’s recommendations alwas go a long way with me. In a way I wish they would start again with English editions in chronological sequence though that seems very unlikely.

  2. TomCat says:

    Good review, Sergio, but a pity that Smittenaar took so many liberties with his translation, especially that Hill Street Blues reference, which I can assure you isn’t part of the original text. I hope a publisher on the other side of pond gives decides to give Baantjer new and proper translations (I think the recent Speck Press editions also used the Smittenaar translations from the 90s).

    Yes, Baantjer’s books are light reads (the paper equivalent of the TV-series Murder, She Wrote), which perhaps explains their popularity when most crime series at the time were serious police procedurals or thrillers, but he sneaked a bit of social commentary into his books later on in his career.

    A few examples: De Cock en de onsterfelijke dood (DeKok and the Immortal Death) opens with De Cock attacking mandatory sensitivity training for policemen and De Cock en tranen aan de Leie (DeKok and Tears at the Leie) is one big condemnation of the lenient justice system of the past few decades and perhaps one of his most tragic, and bizarre, books – involving a flock of ex-murderers and judges/D.A’s being poisoned with Belladonna and a noose hung around their necks. The solution is more down to Earth showing that law and justice aren’t necessarily the same thing.

    • Thanks very much TC – I will certainly read more of these and I’ll certainly see about tracking down some of these later ones you mention. Thanks again for suggesting these – really enjoyed embarking on something new.

      • TomCat says:

        Alas, the later ones I mentioned haven’t been translated yet, but I did find a complete list of translations (I hope): click here. From that list I would recommend Murder in Séance (John wrote a wonderful review of this book on his blog), Geese of Death (modern country-house mystery), The Dying Stroller (featuring the Ellerian motif of the dying message) and Murder in Ecstasy (Baantjer in medium boiled mode).

  3. Colin says:

    I have to admit that up to now, my exposure to Dutch detectives has been limited to Van Der Valk. This series sounds quite attractive – I have no problem with light books, and positively welcome them at times. However, the translation problems do seem like they would be a bit annoying. Cheers for bringing the author and series to my attention though.

    • Thanks Colin – I’d been looking forward to this for ages and the translation issue, while thoroughly irksome (to me at least) is only a small factor – but good procedurals are always worth celebrating!

      • Colin says:

        Certainly. I like the sound of the story, and the series, but I also have a problem with clunky translations. Maybe teaching English for a living for so long has made me more sensitive to this sort of thing. The fact remains, however, that awkward phrasing and the like immediately draws my attention, and not in a good way.

        • I was going to include more examples of what seemed like rather poor attempts to find equivalents from the Dutch but didn’t want to get too negative as I did enjoy the book quite a lot, but it is neither fish nor fowl in the end, using phrases and examples that are clearly Americn while using other idioms that have no basis in English at all and so really stick out.

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    I have had one of this series on my shelves for years. Maybe this will provide an incentive to read it.

  5. Smiteenaar’s clunky translations leave a lot to be desired. In the ones I read I was bothered by a lot of the unnecessary modernizations. Telex machines are transformed into faxes, for example, and any reference to the guilder is converted to the Euro. When I finally did settle on one that grabbed me (Murder in Seance) I liked this Dutch cop and his partner. I keep wanting to try another and have my list of titles recommended by our “Dutchman” blogger. Interestingly, the book you review here was one I tried but never managed to finish. I think I prefer DeKok in his traditional sleuthing mode of which there is a lot in Murder in Seance.

    Dutch Crime Fiction Trivia: Jan Willem DeWetering is also an ex-cop turned mystery writer. But probalby the only ex-cop turned crime writer who is also a Buddhist. I greatly enjoyed all of those books and should get a review of a few of them up at PSB.

    • TomCat says:

      Dutch Crime Fiction Trivia II: Baantjer was a homicide detective during the time that Jan William van den Wetering and Simon de Waal (still a part-time policeman) worked for the Amsterdam police. De Waal and Baantjer knew each other from that time and De Waal wrote for the Baantjer TV-series before they began collobarating on a new series, but I can’t say for sure how well he knew Van den Wetering. I do remember reading somewhere that they met and talked at a crime-scene (I pulled several books from the shelves, but can’t find the story).

      • That is just brilliant TomCat – that’s just a crime plot waiting to happen, two cop novelists competing to solve a case and publish a book about it too! Steven Bochco (writer-producer and co-creator of NYPD Blue and the aforementioned Hill Street Blues) had a lot of fun with the idea of cops turned writers (or screenwriters) in his really entertaining novel, Death in Hollywood.

      • John says:

        That is very cool! Thanks for that, Tomcat. I think we all ought to put our brains together and come up with a internet game show filled with crime fiction trivia like this. Let the battle of the buzzers and mouses (?) begin.

    • Thanks John – I certainly want to read more of these if possible, disheartening as it is to hear that it isn’t just this volume that got stuck with the ‘updating’ in the translation. Love that tidbit about Jan William van den Wetering – thanks chum, priceless.

  6. TracyK says:

    I have been wanting to read some of this series but not too sure because of what I had heard about the translations and modernizations. Those do bother me. Although I am sure I would not have noticed the misplacement of Hill Street Blues. Also may be too light for me but I won’t know until I try them. Based on your recommendations and those of others, I will try them anyway.

    I am glad I came in after some discussion, because I enjoyed the comments on the authors as ex-cops also. Always learning something here.

  7. Sergio, many thanks for introducing me to the works of Baantjer. I haven’t read many translated works not counting Russian and French literature. TomCat, John and others have, indeed, added to my knowledge. Great stuff all round.

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