RARA-AVIS: Baantjer

From: JIM DOHERTY ( jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 23 Sep 2002

This week: The Rest of the World.

Police work, and police officers, are universal. Every country has some form of law enforcement.

There are sub-genres of mystery that are particularly identified with specific countries. The hard-boiled private eye story, characterS like Dick Francis's Sid Halley notwithstanding, is largely an AMerican art form. The "classic puzzler" or "cozy" seems decidely British, despite the efforts of writers like Ellery Queen or S.S. Van Dine.

But, since police work is universal, attempts to realistically portray police work are similarly universal. Writers ranging from Sweden's Sjowall/Wahloo combo to China's Qiu Xialong, from Russia's Julian Semyenov to Japan's Seichu Matsumoto, have all tried their hand at authentically depicting their nations' police service in fiction.

This week I'll be looking at a few cop-writers from other parts of the world. First up: Albert Cornelis Baantjer of the Netherlands.

Baantjer spent more than 25 years as a homicide detective in the Amsterdam police. After retiring, he began a long series of novels featuring a Maigret-like Amsterdam cop named DeCock. There are now over 50 books in the series, which began appearing in the early '60s. about 30 or 40 of them have been translated and published in the US. Oddly, in the American editions the character's name is spelled
"DeKok," apparently because of the sexual connotation in the word "cock."

Reportedly, Baantjer based the character on a colleague named LeCoq, although this sounds suspicious since Lecoq is the name of the famous French policeman created in a series of 19th century novels by Emile Gaboriou. What's seems more likely is that Baantjer may have been tipping his hat to Gaboriou, the first successful European mystery writer, and, according to some sources, the first writer to extend detective fiction from the short story to the novel.

Baantjer (that single name appears as the by-line at least on the US editions) is something of a publishing phenom in Europe. He's the single most successful writer in the Netherlands. Each new DeCock novel regularly hits the Dutch best-seller list, then repeats the feat in other European countries. There is an extraordinarily popular DeCOCK TV series shown in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, and a DeCock board game is currently one of the highest-selling toys in Europe. Baantjer's almost an industry.

I've enjoyed the Baantjer books I've read, though at times the translations have seemd a bit awkward. THe atmosphere, and sense of place have been strong selling points for me, and I like the lead character, a man in late middle age who's seen it all, and still has managed to hold on to his humanity. There's not a lot of overt violence, and, while DeCock (or DeKok, since I've only read the American editions) and his partner, Vledder, are pretty tough cookies, it's difficult to say how "colloquial" they are since I'm reading translations. Which a roundabout way of saying that I don't know how hard-boiled most of you would regard them.

But if you like a well-presented European atmosphere and a convincing picture of police work in another country, I'd recommend Baantjer.


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