Sunday, May 4, 2014

The House of Lurking Death

Ons exemplaar van dit boek is niet meer toonbaar. Toen wij het, in de vacantiegemeenschap aan de plassen, op tafel lieten liggen, maakte een acute leeswoede zich van het gezelschap meester. Men ging met Manuel in 't bad, nam hem terluiks mee om te zeilen, canoën hengelen (sic) men koekeloerde met hem in de avondzon en bij het petroleumpitje verslond men hem zwijgzaam, der wereld afgestorven.
Algemeen Handelsblad (September 20, 1935)

Our copy of the book is not in a presentable state anymore. When we left the book on a table at the resort near the lakes, a sudden lust for reading took hold of everyone. People took baths with Manuel, secretly took him along to sailing, canoeing and fishing. They watched the setting sun with him, and silently devoured him next to the gas burner, gone from this world.
Algemeen Handelsblad Newspaper (September 20, 1935)

Language shenanigans on this blog: I've read Edward D. Hoch and Anthony Berkeley mostly in Japanese. I have read Freeman Crofts only in Japanese, never in English! And I've read Maurice LeBlanc's Lupin novels in English, German and Japanese. But never in French (even though I can read that...barely) and Dutch. And today, reading a Dutch novel in German...

I wrote in December about Dutch actor / radio play writer / translator / mystery writer Jan Apon's Een tip van Brissac, a classic puzzle plot mystery that I thought was great. I had first read about Jan Apon in a 1958 Japanese essay on European detective fiction, in which Inaki Katsuhiko praised Apon's second novel, Een zekere Manuel ("A Certain Manuel", 1935). Looking through some old reviews, it seemed it was received quite well in the Netherlands at the time. So I had been looking for the book for a while now, but Jan Apon's books don't appear often on the Dutch used book market, it seems, so in the end, I had to settle with Ein Gewisser Manuel, the German translation. The story is set in Sicily, in Castello Maro, home of the marquess Montebellini and her family. Narrator Dirk van Baalen is hired as a private teacher to the marquess' grandson and while he had at first looked forward to living in a Sicilian castle, the dark and gloomy atmosphere makes him regret his career choice. The place is isolated from the 'civilized' world and there are of course also (violent, bloody) legends surrounding the tower of the castle. But not only his new home is getting on van Baalen's nerves: the members of the Montebellini family and their many guests all seem to have their share of secrets and plans. One night, van Baalen overhears a conversation where two people conspire to kill "Manuel", because he is too dangerous. Van Baalen has no idea who Manuel is, but when one of the two conspirators is found dead one morning, van Baalen is convinced it was a counterattack by the intended target. But who is this Manuel?

Like with Een tip van Brissac, finding information on the contents on Een zekere Manuel was difficult. In fact, I could only find Japanese information on it. So once again, I wasn't sure what to expect from this pre-war Dutch mystery novel, but I was indeed quite pleasantly surprised with the story. The story moves at a steady pace, Castello Maro serves as a great setting for everybody to act as suspicously as possible, and while not perfect, I think the conclusion has some interesting points. Of course, a semi-closed circle situation in a dark castle with its own bloody legends, suspicious guests, a mysterious, yet sinister name that drives the mystery plot and multiple murders are elements that make me quite happy, so the book gets a lot of bonus points for that, especially considering that a lot of Dutch mystery novels seem to be more 'realistic'. The fact writer Jan Apon translated a Van Dine novel, gives a small hint to what kind of detective fiction he liked, I suspect, and it shows in his work. Looking back at my review of Een tip van Brissac, I see I said the same: a great collection of classic tropes that, even though not particularly original, are implemented well and they appeal to me personally.

The plot of Een zekere Manuel does rely a lot on coincidence though. Van Baalen just happens to overhear that conversation with Manuel's name, and just stumble upon several crucial hints, which is a bit of a shame. The gear-change of the plot near the end, in an effort to wrap the story up before it reaches the last page is also quite sudden, with crucial hints falling from the sky upon van Baalen. Also, the conclusion is not completely fair, but I do like what Jan Apon was going for. A bit of rewriting could have made Een zekere Manuel in completely fair play whodunnit I think, so it does feel like a missed opportuniy. That said, I did enjoy reading the book and I think I agree with Inaki's comments from 1958 saying "the complexity of the plot, the way it develops and the surprise factor are all excellent". But unlike the Algemeen Handelsblad's reviewer I quoted at the start of this review, I didn't take the book with me to the bathroom.

I do think it's interesting to see we have a real amateur detective as the narrator in a Dutch detective novel for a change. Most (classic) Dutch detective novels seem to feature either police inspectors (or magistrates in China or Japan...), or maybe other professionals with some relation to crime fighting (law, ex-policemen), so a biology-scholar-turned-amateur-detective as the protagonist was quite refreshing. Jan Apon's series detective Raoul Bertin is a ex-cop-turned-private-detective, so he too kinda falls in the first category... Oh, and unless they did something really funny with the German translation, Raoul Bertin does not appear in Een zekere Manuel, despite multiple sources saying he does.

I also find it amusing to see Jan Apon's books are all set abroad (i.e. not the Netherlands). At least, I have only read Een zekere Manuel and Een tip van Brissac, but I think I can sorta assume that the rest of the Raoul Bertin series is also set in or around France... Not sure why Apon is avoiding the home country though. Might have to do with a bit of romanticism, I think.

Anyway, Een zekere Manuel was certainly an interesting detective novel, especially if you look at it from the context of Dutch classic puzzle plot detectives, I think. But it's an amusing read 'as is' too. And heck, this one isn't just for that rare breed of Dutch readers, as there's a German translation too! That means there's a bigger chance any given reader could actually read Een zekere Manuel, compared to most of the Dutch mystery novels I've discussed here, right?

Original Dutch title(s): Jan Apon "Een zekere Manuel


  1. Late response, I know! And I know how frustrating it can be when you're looking for information on these obscure Dutchies and all you can find is biographical information of the book's writer. I still haven't found the correct publication date for Van Eysselsteijn's Romance in F-Dur (see review).

    I've never read anything by Apon... so nothing to add in that department.

    1. I did have a bit of fun going through the book review columns of old local newspapers looking through stuff on Apon though! Maybe you can find something on /Romance in F-Dur/ there? (Digital archives are a godsend!)

      This week's readings have been very Dutch actually, but I'm not sure when I'll write/post the reviews: I have enough reviews in the waiting line now to last me until well into July!