Same sort of face, whiskers and all. I never knew I looked like a porcupine.
The words of the character Mr McTosh from the book Hugh Pine (1980) by Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering, the subject of today’s post. Hugh Pine is a porcupine who befriends humans in order to help his fellow porcupines from being killed when crossing the road. Not crime fiction I grant you, but one example of the astonishing range of writing from van de Wetering’s pen. A range which includes books for children, including the Hugh Pine series, books about Zen and about living a Zen life (The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery (1971) is still a cult Zen classic), and also a brilliant Amsterdam-based crime series.
Janwillem van de Wetering was born in Rotterdam in 1931 and died in Maine, USA in 2008. In between, he travelled extensively across Europe, Japan (where he studied Zen), Australia and South America. He worked in sales and real estate before turning his hand to writing. He returned to Holland in 1965 to discover that his obligation to undertake a period of national service still needed to be satisfied. Failure to do so would have landed him in jail, a fate he was spared when a civil servant pointed out he could, instead, join the reserve police force in Amsterdam. The idea staggered me, he said. I never knew that one could be a policeman in one’s spare time. He served for seven years and it was to be the making of him as a crime novelist as it gave birth to Outsider in Amsterdam (1975), the first in the long-running and extremely successful police procedural series featuring the characters Detective-Adjutant Henk Grijpstra and Sergeant Rinus de Gier of the Amsterdam police. The series ran for over 20 years and the texture it provides in terms of Amsterdam’s colonial past and the, at the time, unexplored notion of free drug culture, is a staggeringly rich backdrop. Outsider in Amsterdam interrogates the difficult notion of whether a murder can ever be fully justified, something Agatha Christie loved to do.
Grijpstra and de Gier are a classic double act and their partnership survived for 15 novels and many short stories. Grijpstra, the more senior, is overweight, over the hill and struggling to hold together an unhappy marriage. Rinus de Gier is the stuff of legend. Dashing, debonair and denim-clad he is good looking and single. However, for all his relationships, nearly all of them very short term ones, he remains a bachelor, devoted to his pet, a psychotic Siamese tomcat called Oliver. He is deeply thoughtful and clearly follows a Zen code, in a clear nod to van de Wetering’s own life. If you want to picture him then imagine a young Rutger Hauer with a semi-naked woman draped around him. In fact, don’t imagine it, just watch this trailer of Wim Verstappen’s 1979 film adaptation of Outsider in Amsterdam, called Grijpstra & De Gier starring, well, Rutger Hauer as de Gier and Rijk de Gooyer as Grijpstra. The trailer lasts a minute, contains several shots of female nudity, guns, knives and police violence and has hardly any dialogue, such is the accompanying bongo rhythm. It will make you want to a) watch the film, b) read the book (and you really should) and c) be Rinus de Gier, or Rutger Hauer, or quite possibly both.
Here, in his own words, is how van de Wetering approached his writing, taken from the introduction to Outsider in Amsterdam.
…for several years now I have been a member of Amsterdam’s Special Constabulary and serve the Queen in the uniform of a police constable. 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. My imagination has, here and there, carried me away and the result is that the police routine as described in this book is not, in every instance, based on established police technique.
The matter-of-fact nature of this statement gives little notice of the fabulously varied life lived by the writer nor of the outstanding writing that follows. Outsider in Amsterdam is a genuine classic. When you read it bear in mind that crime fiction was only one of the genres van de Wetering mastered.