Friday, October 9, 2015

Ashes to Ashes

いつでも捜しているよ どっかに君の姿を
交差点でも 夢の中でも 
「One More Time, One More Chance」(山崎まさよし)

I'm always looking for a sign of you
Even at the intersection, even in my dreams
Even though you couldn't possibly be there
"One More Time, One More Chance" (Yamazaki Masayoshi) 

While I understand it's to protect the smaller novelists and publishers, I do always lament the fact the Netherlands has a rather rigid law for book prices. It's definitely a reason why I seldom buy Dutch books (and thus the law has the opposite effect in my case).

M.P.O. Books' De Laatste Kans ("The Last Chance", 2011) starts with the discovery of the body of Jacques Vermin, covered by his paternal ashes once held in the urn that killed him. The grotesque murder gives rise to several questions with Inspector Petersen and his team at the District Heuvelrug in central Netherlands. The obvious question is of course who did it, but other questions also keep the inspector busy: why was Jacques so determined to keep his residence in nature-filled Leersum a secret to practically everyone? How did he make his money? Is there a connection between his death and a lost child who was left somewhere down Jacques' street the night of his murder? Petersen leads his team of detectives in search for answers, but is not only having trouble with witnesses and other interested parties, his own team also serves as a hurdle to be taken as personal problems start to influence the effectiveness of the team and the investigation itself.

De Laatste Kans is the fifth novel in the District Heuvelrug series by Dutch writer M.P.O. Books. My colleague over at Beneath The Stains Of Time has written very often and praisingly on his blog about M.P.O. Books' series as a good, recent Dutch police procedural that actually invokes the spirit of the puzzle plots we so love, and I had been saying for years I would try reading one of the books. This is the first time I read something by Books by the way, but De Laatste Kans can be read without any knowledge of prior entries in the series.

The most memorable feature of the De Laatste Kans is the structure: the story constantly jumps between a very varied cast of characters, both the police and the suspects, giving you a glimpse in each of their minds. In videogames, this is usually referred to as a "zapping system", i.e. the reader is zapping between "channels" that each focus on a different character (games I discussed with a zapping system are: Machi, 428, Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony and Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody). The result is that De Laatste Kans seldom bores, as it keeps on giving the reader something different, without feeling chaotic or padded out. While there are more books that feature jumping between points of view, the fact it's all neatly organized through time-stamps really reminds me of the zapping systems of videogames.

The plot of De Laatste Kans was also surprisingly well-constructed. The book had a bit of bad luck: I was juggling between De Laatste Kans and another book that just happened to do something similar, so I realized who Jacques Vermin's murderer probably was very early on, but that didn't make De Laatste Kans any bit less fun: it is still a well-written detective story. One hint in particular was wonderfully done. A minor gripe I had was with some coincidences that led to the murder, but nothing game-breaking.

As I said, this is the fifth book in a running series and features a fairly wide cast starring Inspector Peterson and his team of detectives. It appears that these characters have been developed quite a lot in the run of the series, and the dynamics within the team is also a crucial part of De Laatste Kans. It never interferes with the puzzle plot and we're not talking about oh-woe-is-me-life-of-a-police-officer, but there is a good part of the novel about the people investigating the case. I guess that people who have been reading from the start will be more emotionally invested in the caracters, but even without really knowing these characters, De Laatste Kans strikes a good balance between the plot and its characters (and luckily in favor of the plot).

But for the Dutch readers here, De Laatste Kans is a recommended read as a fun detective novel that actually delivers. For the non Dutch-readers, alas, I don't think M.P.O. Books are available in English yet. Then again, most of the books I discuss are not available in English...

Original Dutch title(s): M.P.O. Books "De Laatste Kans"


  1. Well, it was about time you got around to reading this series and glad to see your opinion on this one concurs with mine. I loved it!

    The first three novels in this series are in the mold of the contemporary police procedural and thrillers, of which the first one, Bij verstek veroordeeld, was the best. It's somewhat reminiscent of the Midsomer Murders, but its been ages since I read it and the only thing I remember about it are the pitch-fork murders.

    After the first three books and a gap in publications of five years, the series returned in 2010 with a decidedly classical bend and stuff such as proper clueing, stronger plot construction and even the occasional locked room mystery.

    These are De blikvanger, De dood van Callista de Vries, Een afgesloten huis, Cruise Control en Dodelijke hobby, which is a short story collection. Jot them down on your wish list!

    Yes, that law makes books expensive, but there's barely anything for us on that market. So, yeah.

    1. I already read Een afgesloten huis, Cruise Control and Dodelijke hobby actually. Reviews of the novels are scheduled for...early Spring. You know the story :P As a little preview: I enjoyed them too :)

      (To be completely honest though, finding unused book vouchers was a major push in the back for finally starting with the series)

  2. What did you think of ranpo kitan?

    1. Haven't finished it yet, but it's a bit flawed. At one hand, it manages to invoke a typical Rampo atmosphere through some clever techniques (like how Kobayashi looks at the world and the other characters), on the other hand, the mysteries are a bit meh.