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de kok and murder by installment

21 may 2007

"A.C. Baantjer is the most widely read author in the Netherlands," the cover of De Kok and Murder by Installment assures me, and McBain, Simenon, and Conan Doyle appear frequently in the reviewer blurbs for this newly-translated mystery. I know almost no Dutch, but it seems to me that translator H.G. Smittenaar has lost a great deal in rendering the novel into English. I'm not quite sure I want to learn Dutch to repair these losses, but I reckon there is probably more to De Kok than meets the Dutchless reader's eyes.

The first problem in translating De Cock en moord op termijn – well, aside from the unfortunate spelling of the hero's name, which necessitates a twist into the only slightly less suggestive "De Kok" for American readers – is one of period. The precipitating event in Baantjer's mystery is the discovery of a young narcotics suspect with a huge amount of cash taped to his waist. The first Dutch edition appeared in 1985, but Smittenaar gives the amount of the wad as 100,000 Euros. Something doesn't jibe, and things get worse. The greying De Kok is a fifty-something technophobe who hates driving (OK) and does not know how to use a computer (OK for 1985, less plausible for the Euro era). Mobile phones seem not to exist in 21st-century Holland, and AIDS is a recently-discovered disease. The translator's attempt to "update" the story becomes simply grating. What could have been an interesting 1980s period piece becomes a disorienting attempt to remember quite where we are in the passing centuries.

There are other unfortunate moves by the translator, including a clumsy attempt to render thieves' cant as a vague farrago of transatlantic tough-guy English. Behind the obstacles presented by the translation, the novel is somewhat trite. De Kok is indeed a Maigret of sorts, an old-school detective who eschews forensic science in favor of alcohol-assisted cerebration and liberal schmoozing. Unlike Maigret, De Kok is mercurial and confrontational with superiors, simply for the hell of it; in that he's a little like Kurt Wallander, Swedish-African writer Henning Mankell's dour sleuth (to whose popularity the current rage for translating European procedurals must be traced). But even allowing for the fog of translation, De Kok is a mighty shallow pool compared to Wallander's brooding depths.

The triteness extends to the plot, which involves a group of prominent citizens succumbing in turn to murder by seven-iron, a nasty if genteel enough way to go. There's an obvious suspect who is just as obviously innocent. There's an elaborate conspiracy with lots of symbolic clues. The novel is fun enough – hardly a waste of time or wear on your library card – but veteran mystery readers are unlikely to find anything new here except some Amsterdam local color.

De Kok and Murder by Installment is number 22 in a series; Speck Press seems to have obtained the rights to numbers 18 through 23 so far, and is publishing them apace. Don't let me dissuade you; but don't expect too much from these versions.

Baantjer, A.C. De Kok and murder by installment. [De Cock en moord op termijn, 1985] Translated by H.G. Smittenaar. Denver: Speck, 2007.