Janwillem van de Wetering Essay - Critical Essays


Janwillem van de Wetering launched his literary career with two autobiographical nonfictional books, written in Dutch and published in Amsterdam. Both were later translated into English and were published in Boston by Houghton Mifflin, which eventually produced the American editions of almost all of his books. De lege spiegel: Ervaringen in een Japans Zenklooster (1971; The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, 1973) and Het dagende niets (1973; A Glimpse of Nothingness: Experiences in an American Zen Community, 1975) are accounts of van de Wetering’s study of Zen.

Outsider in Amsterdam

In 1975, he began his Amsterdam police series with Outsider in Amsterdam, one of his best novels. Sergeant de Gier and Adjutant Grijpstra are summoned to one of the seventeenth century gabled houses that line the canals of central Amsterdam and give the city so much of its charm and beauty. De Gier admires the graceful old architecture and deplores the ugly buildings of a later period. The house to which they have been summoned was once owned by a respectable gentleman of the merchant class. Now, however, it has a body hanging in it.

As the detectives get to work, their characters are revealed, and even the secondary characters come to life. Unlike some writers of detective fiction, van de Wetering does not use much violence. His characters can cope with it when they must, but they do not go out of their way to seek it. Although dogged and relentless, like most of their counterparts in the genre, these detectives are also very human, with distinctive personalities. According to one critic, who quotes from an interview with van de Wetering,They’re comfortable people to be around, these policemen, all of them readier to discuss life than to pull the trigger, but each with distinctive traits of character. De Gier, a sensitive fellow with a passion for music and cats, is, says de Wetering, “What I would like to be.” The less imaginative Grijpstra? “Me again—my solid Dutch side.”

Van de Wetering is also an observant critic of society, though not a solemn one, for wit, irony, and humor enliven his style. The house ostensibly belongs to a quasi-religious group, a kind of commune, but the manager of it, now dead, had turned it into a profitable drug-distribution center. As the murder investigation proceeds, van de Wetering hurls barbs at drugs and drug dealers, the underground economy and businessmen who declare only part of their income, and hippies and the founders of communes and new societies. De Gier, for example, is angered by the discovery of young addicts who have been pushed into degradation and self-destruction. Lured by easy profits, a bright university student has set up an “antiques” business, which de Gier correctly identifies as a front for a drug-wholesaling operation. Sneering at de Gier’s low salary, the former student offers him a job. In their exchange, van de Wetering portrays two very different worlds in conflict. After the drug wholesaler offers a percentage of the profits, saying, “You could make more on one deal, a deal taking a few weeks, than you are now making in a year,” de Gier rejects the entire idea. He responds, “Drugs mean the end of everything. . . . It was the end of China before the communists solved the problem. Drugs mean dry earth, dust storms, famine, slaves, bandit wars.”

Early in their investigation, Grijpstra and de Gier find out that the dead manager, who was a stingy man, had been exploiting the young people who lived and worked in the house and were members of his religious society. His financial adviser, who was also lending him the money for his drug operations, is an elegant, prosperous, and respected certified public accountant. Both detectives are aware of the privileged position of such a professional in modern society: “He is a man trusted by the establishment. Whatever he says is believed and the tax inspectors talk to him as equal to equal.” Another brushstroke completes the ironic portrait:His smile glinted in the dark room. Grijpstra studied the smile for a moment. Expensive teeth. Eight thousand guilders perhaps? Or ten thousand? The false teeth looked very natural, each individual tooth a work of art, and the back teeth all of solid gold.

Aside from the three Amsterdam detectives, the most interesting character in the novel is the...

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