Outsider in Amsterdam by Janwillem van de Wetering

outsider in amsterdam janwillem van de wetering 5161-dBqzeLSoho Crime has reissued the first novels in 24 of the small press’s most popular crime series.  This new introductory series is called “Passport to Crime.”

Full confession: I  started with the Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering’s  Outsider in Amsterdam (1975), because  I read  his autobiographical books on Zen, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery and A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community.  For a couple of months I  attempted (uncomfortably) to meditate 15 minutes a day while kneeling with my butt on a cushion.

Van Wetering (1931-2008) had a fascinating background.  Not only  was he once a Zen Buddhist monk, he was also a police officer in Amsterdam.

In the preface, he explains that he returned to Amsterdam after a long trip and received a letter saying he had to serve in the Army.  When he complained that he was over 30 and didn’t want to be a soldier,  a middle-aged woman behind a desk suggested he work as a policeman in his spare time instead.

He writes,

The idea staggered me.  I never knew that one can be a policeman in one’s spare time.

But one can, and for several years now I have been a member of Amsterdam’s Special Constabulary ….  I have been in a number of adventures in the inner city of the capital and some of them inspired me to write this story.

In Outsider in Amsterdam, the first volume in the Amsterdam Cops series, Detective-Adjutant Gripstra, a brilliant, overweight, middle-aged officer whose  years of experience help him unravel the most difficult puzzles, and Sergeant de Gier, his moody contemplative,  much stronger young partner,  investigate the suicide of Piet, the leader of a religious cult called the “Hindists.”

outsider in amsterdam hardcover van de wetering 46961But is it suicide?  They are not sure.  When they knock on the door of the house where Piet lived and ran his religious business, a tiny Papuan black man, Jan Karel Van Meteren,  insists on checking their ID (which never happens).  Van Meteren, a traffic cop who used to be a police officer in his own country,  got to know Piet and lived free in the house, along with four hippies who work in the Hindist restaurant in the house.   Van Meteren says he had nothing to do with the religion.

Gripstra and De Gier pass the restaurant on the first floor and pause to look at a statue in a niche of a female deity doing an erotic dance. The statue is important later.

Van de Wetering, who wrote these books in English, is a master of the convoluted plot and has a strong but straightforward style that does not occlude the story. He also adroitly captures the liberal mood of the 1970s and the mid-twentieth-century interest in Eastern religion, sex, and drugs. The police officers are both well-developed, unique characters who have compassion for the victims: they do not take life and death lightly

The description of the corpse is grisly, but the violence takes place offstage. Once Van Meteren leads them upstairs to Piet’s room

De Gier had a feeling that they had now penetrated into the secret part of the house; perhaps the silence of the corridor motivated the thought.  The music of the restaurant didn’t reach this lofty level.  Gripstra entered the room and sighed.  He saw the corpse and it moved, exactly as he had expected. It would be the draft, of course, all phenomena can be explained, but the slow ghastly movement chilled his spine.  De Gier had now come in as well and watched silently.  He noticed the small bare feet with their neat toes pointed at the floor.  His gaze wandered upward and recorded the protruding tongue and the wide open bulging blue eyes.  A small corpse that had belonged to a living man.  A little over five feet.  A thin man, well dressed in khaki trousers of good cloth, nicely ironed, and a freshly laundered striped shirt.  Some forty years old.  long thick dark red hair and a full mustache, hanging down at the corners by its own weight.  De Gier moved closer and looked a the corpse’s wristwatch.  He grunted.  A very expensive watch, worth a small fortune.  He couldn’t remember ever having seen a gold strap of such width and quality.

Van Meteren, who discovered the body, does not take it for granted that it was suicide. It could have been murder.  But there are so many suspects:  the residents of the house, especially Piet’s pregnant girlfriend, who threw a book at him which left a bruise on his head shortly before he died:  Piet’s wife, who may or may not have been in France at the time of the murder; the well-heeled businessmen who supported the venture; and Van Meteren himself.  And how did Piet make his money?  He was very rich.

Some of the odder scenes seem very  ’70s:  at one point Grjipstra, De Gier, and Van Meteren have a musical jam session in an empty room in Piet’s house.  (Amsterdam cops are different from Americans?  But what do I really know about musical cops?)

This book is well-written, and, like all the best mysteries, short.

I can’t wait to read the next book in the series.

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