Saturday, June 27, 2009

Latest Baantjer Mystery: DeKOK AND THE MASK OF DEATH

Speck Press has been steadily bringing to the US market the Baantjer mysteries -- by the Dutch master of police procedurals, whose work is so popular in Europe that he's simply called forth by his surname, without even his initials much of the time (A. C., for Albert Cornelis). The latest translation, DeKOK AND THE MASK OF DEATH, was first printed in Dutch in 1987. So it's a period piece, already a classic before its July 1 release in the States.

But the charm of Baantjer's series about the overweight, skeptical Amsterdam police detective holds up well to a 22-year gap. DeKok is good at his job, but politically overwhelmed by the constant needs of his superior, the commisaris. This time, his boss wants to sidetrack him to pickpocket detail, as the arrival of Operation Sail Amsterdam is sure to draw a gullible crowd, with the crime experts that will arrive like flies on honey. So when a young man stumble into the station house and stammers that his girlfriend has vanished while being examined at a local hospital, DeKok wants the case to matter. And it's more than just a longing to solve a crime -- it's a recognition that something in the case reflects something that just happened to him:
Standing in front of the station house, DeKok contemplated the worn bluestone steps hollowed out over the years by the footsteps of cops and sinners. The steps felt like a barrier, a barrier that filled him with an unreasonable feat that cooled the bright sunlight and sent a shivering chill through his bones. It was as if a strange inner voice whispered to him, urging him to forgo his life for a day and take a leap into the future. Shrugging off the inexplicable fear, DeKok climbed the steps and opened the door.

To DeKok's surprise, the arriving young man at the station has had a similar experience on the same day, a sense of foreboding that almost caused him to stop his girlfriend from entering the hospital. "But I realized how idiotic my fear really was."

Completely serious, the police inspector replies, "Although the immediate reason may be nebulous, fear is never idiotic."

And that gives you a taste of the distinct flavor of DeKok: presented with a range of language that instantly signals "translation" (the slight awkwardness, the shifts from informal to formal, etc.) but also lays out landmarks for what is important in life. DeKok chooses where to place his trust and his willingness to believe, as well as the stubborn streak that causes him to pursue odd angles of a case.

In this case, it turns out that young Richard Netherwood's girlfriend is one of four women who've vanished in the same hospital. And the reason for their disappearance is deadly serious, and absolutely up-to-date for 2009. So is DeKok's anguish as he struggles to pull the pieces together.

The pace of these translations is just about perfect -- one Baantjer per year offers a chance to enjoy this return to a simpler version of Europe, where the horrors of today's international intrigue are far less important than the human needs of those who try to adjust the balance of good and evil, police and crime, toward hope.

The US edition releases in hardcover on July 1. If you haven't yet started collecting this series, you'll be able to pick this one up without need for the earlier volumes. But I have to confess, it's tempting to gather the entire series, for the quiet and comfortable satisfaction that each volume manages to establish by its end.

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