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”
Like 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?”
The 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.