Though relatively little-known in the United States, mystery author A.C. Baantjer is sure to gain a wide an appreciative audience here with Speck Press's marvelous releases of his novels featuring the brilliant yet sometimes Clouseau-like Inspector DeKok, translated with loving care by H.G. Smittenaar. DeKok and the Dead Harlequin is an excellent introduction to the strange wonderfulness that it is to read an Inspector DeKok novel. In it, DeKok has to solve a case involving two murder victims killed and posed in identical ways, with their arms splayed out and grimaces on their faces as if they were harlequins. Bizarre black humor fortifies the novel, much like the coffee DeKok is addicted to fortifies him to go on, despite being confronted with red herrings and dead ends.
The novel opens up with Inspector DeKok and his foil, Inspector Vledder, confronted with a letter from a person (Pierre Brassel) who is asking DeKok for advice as to how to commit the perfect murder. DeKok wants Vledder to check it out, and treats it as at least potentially being a serious letter, though Vledder believes it must be some sort of a joke, possibly written be a crazy person, and doesn't want to give the letter any credence:
"But it's crazy," he exclaimed stubbornly. "Totally foolish. I'm sorry, DeKok, but I can't see the seriousness of it." He snorted deprecatingly. "Come on, admit it, who
would write such a letter? Even if somebody planned to kill somebody, they certainly wouldn't announce it to the police. Nobody does that."
DeKok looked at him.
"Well, maybe somebody who's crazy."
But Pierre Brassel, the man who wrote the letter, is an accountant, and Vledder admits to DeKok that his investigations lead him to believe that Brassel wasn't crazy at all, and that "the people who discussed him with me generally agreed that Pierre Brassel has above-average intelligence." This disquiets DeKok somewhat. Perhaps if Brassel had turned out to be a madman, the case could have been over before it even began. As DeKok tells Vledder:
"Well, if Pierre Brassel were known as a friendly, harmless madman, everything
would be a lot easier. I'd just make one quick call to the nut removal team; they
could take him away and observe him for a few days. As things stand, though..."
The two inspectors agree to meet Pierre Brassel at eight at night, as the letter requested, at the Warmoes Street Station in Amsterdam, where the inspectors work. The time of the meeting is crucial to Pierre's plan and to the plot of the novel. Since the murder that Brassel claims responsibility for takes place shortly after eight, and he is at that time meeting with the inspectors, he has the perfect alibi. The problem is that he knows too many details of the crime, like where it happened, and he's written a note that DeKok finds under the corpse. Pierre says to the inspectors:
"Gentlemen," he announced dramatically, "in room twenty-one of the Greenland
Arms Hotel, about three hundred yards from here as the crow flies, you will find the
corpse of Jan Brets."
Pierre Brassel grinned.
"Jan Brets," he continued cheerfully. "His skull is crushed."
That is exactly what has happened to the unfortunate Jan Brets. His skull has been crushed by a hockey stick whose blade has been weighted with lead, which has been duct taped to it. But, DeKok wonders, why would anyone want to kill someone who seems at first to have been chosen fairly randomly? What could be Brassel's motive, if, indeed, he was somehow able to have murdered Brets? Why would Brassel, or anyone else, want to arrange Bret's corpse in a harlequin-like pose, and make sure that Brassel's letter warning Bret that he might be killed that night was found placed under his body? If Brassel wasn't the murderer, he knew a lot of details and had to have been working with someone else. If so, who was this other person, or persons, and why did they want Brets dead?
DeKok and Vledder have to put in a lot of hours questioning people who knew Brets and Brassel, and the people they speak to are often also quite eccentric. Rather than helping to shed light on the case, they sometimes make the entire affair seem to be more ridiculous and impossible than ever. And then, when a second man is murdered in the same room in the same manner, DeKok has to figure out how the two murders could be related to each other and who could have wanted both men dead.
DeKok and the Dead Harlequin is an excellent, tautly written novel that's suspenseful and page-turning, and is a very fun book to read. A.C. Baantjer is one of the most widely read authors in the Netherlands, and is a former detective inspector of the Amsterdam police. He's written sixty novels featuring Inspector DeKok, and there's even a television series based on these novels with over 100 episodes aired so far, reaching a wide Dutch audience. I am hoping that the other DeKok novels will be translated into English soon, if they are anywhere near as good as this one. Baantjer is known as the "Dutch Conan Doyle," and, though Inspector DeKok has many idiosyncracies, and the novels are very funny in places, he comes across as being brilliant. I encourage anyone who loves mysteries to add this book to your reading lists today!
REVIEWED BY DOUGLAS R. COBB
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