Originally published in 1977 as De Cock en de treurende kater
English translation first published in 1993
Preceded by DeKok and the Dead Harlequin
Followed by DeKok and the Disillusioned Corpse
On the sand dunes that protect the low lands of the Netherlands, an early morning jogger makes a gruesome discovery-the body of a man with a dagger protruding from his back. The corpse of Peter Geffel, better known as “Cunning” Pete, is identified, but the local police cannot find any clues.
When the call goes out to notify other jurisdictions of the discovery, Homicide Detective DeKok feels drawn to the case because he knew the victim. Along with his inseparable side-kick Vledder, DeKok searches the city of Amsterdam for answers. Soon there is another corpse and, unlikely as it may seem, the killing of Cunning Pete is connected to a killing in higher social circles.
One of the things my parents like to do when they visit is have some of their holiday reading shipped to my home in advance. Generally this works out quite well as it saves some valuable suitcase room (and both prefer physical books to the electronic kind) but the last time a shipping snafu meant that one package, a novel by A. C. Baantjer, arrived about fifteen minutes after they departed for the airport. It has been sat on my shelf ever since and I have found myself tempted to try it on several occasions.
You may be expecting me to say that it was this book. Unfortunately you’d be wrong. Thanks to some carelessness on my part I accidentally saw the solution to that one when consulting Adey’s Locked Rooms and I have found myself completely unable to forget it. Still, I was curious and when I found myself wanting to try some Dutch crime I tracked down an ebook of this one (which seems to be the only one available now in the US).
Young Peter Geffel had a reputation as a bit of a joker and troublemaker, rather than a hardened criminal. His line was in embezzlement and blackmail rather than anything violent. Indeed DeKok had once arrested him for embezzlement, landing him with a short stint inside. When Geffel’s body is found among the sand dunes at Seadike with a knife in his back it is assumed by most that one of his victims must have taken exception to their humiliation and had their revenge. It seemed inevitable after all – even his mother expected he would meet a bad end.
When DeKok learns about the murder he starts to ask some questions but before he can get very far he gets pulled into a very different sort of case: the armed robbery of an armored truck that was transporting millions in currency. The size of the transfer had been quite unusual and few would have had knowledge of the plan meaning that either the thieves got very lucky or they had some inside help to do the job.
One of the earliest observations I made about the novel was how quickly the book seems to set up each element of the story. The scenes in the first few chapters are often very short with some blunt prose and character exchanges that are just a couple of paragraphs long. It makes for a rather dizzying start which, coupled with the apparent simplicity of the two plot threads, left me wondering if I had made a mistake in my pick. Fortunately the two plot threads would soon intersect in a way I didn’t quite predict, adding considerably more interest to the scenario for me. Thankfully the storytelling pace also settled a little.
While I would not suggest that the scenario Baantjer creates is particularly exciting in its central elements, what made it compelling for me was the cast of characters. This begins with the character of Geffel who, although we never see him ourselves, still makes a strong impact because of the way others talk about him. His character and decisions are given more depth than I expected and I found myself surprised that I ended up caring about his murder as much as DeKok did.
The other characters that DeKok comes into contact with, both within the company and those connected with Geffel, also struck me as surprisingly vibrant and dimensional, even if we only spend a short time with them. This is conveyed not through the descriptions of them, which are quite brief, but rather through their actions and DeKok’s reactions to them.
This was obviously my first time encountering DeKok. He is a pretty strong personality himself as far as sleuths go, though we do not get much backstory or sense of his home life – just enough to get a clear sense of the man’s values and general character. I found that I liked him, particularly enjoying his provocative needling of some of the suspects.
The investigation, though slower than the setup, still moves quite quickly. While I would describe Baantjer’s style here as procedural, readers can make inferences and deductions to better understand the case. Though I suggest that the elements here are not particularly exotic, the combination of ideas is often very clever and I did feel that the eventual solution had a very clever ideas. It makes for a pretty solid and enjoyable, if unremarkable, puzzle.
Beyond that it’s hard to know exactly what else to say about this novel as to discuss the things I like most would require spoilers that I know would detract from the impact of those elements and ideas. There is nothing remarkable about DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat but it was a fun and quick read that I felt became more interesting as it progressed. I would certainly expect to revisit the author again in the future.
The Verdict: A solid procedural-type story offering some interesting characterizations, even if the cases’ details are not especially noteworthy.
8 thoughts on “DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat by A. C. Baantjer, translated by H. G. Smittenaar”
Sounds interesting. I haven’t read any Dutch crime fiction before–just some children’s fiction.
Any actual cats in the book? Asking because this seems like a candidate for my Cats and Books page if it does.
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Yes! There are cats and one has an important role in the story. Hope you enjoy if you try it!
Thanks. I will pop it onto my list, and it’s certainly going onto my Cats and Books page on the blog.
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You can hold the late, sorely missed Appie Baantjer responsible for formally introducing me to the genre. He deserves new, and better, translations as Smittenaar took some liberties by adding and changing stuff, which he apparently did to make the book more relatable to Americans. Completely missing the point that the foreign setting and culture is one of the reasons why an American reader might pick up a translation of a non-English mystery.
“Thanks to some carelessness on my part I accidentally saw the solution to that one when consulting Adey’s Locked Rooms and I have found myself completely unable to forget it”
That one is not really an impossible crime. It’s one of his occasional outings into the weird and pulpy. There’s a genuine, but minor, locked room mystery in his debut and quasi-standalone novel, Een strop voor Bobby (A Noose for Bobby). But other than that one, the closest he came was the poisoning in De Cock en de moord in seance (DeKok and the Murder in Seance). I would count that one more as a closed-circle than a pure impossible crime. Whenever he ventured into that direction, he usually went no further than (bizarre) howdunits like De Cock en danse macabre.
Anyway, glad you enjoyed the book. You might like to know Baantjer served with the Amsterdam police for nearly four decades and handled many murder cases, before becoming the most successful crime writers in the history of this country. Another reason why he deserves better translations.
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Sounds like there is lots to thank Baantjer for! I was a little curious about the translation and what you describe confirms some things I had wondered about. As you suggest, local flavor and character is one of the reasons that I enjoy reading fiction in translation and it’s sad to read that some of that has been excised from these translations.
Thank you for the background on Baantjer and some of his other works. I am glad that I didn’t end up reading him with a focus on the impossible crimes if that is not a strong element of that novel.
But yes, I certainly enjoyed it. I am at a bit of a loss as to which to reach for next given the lack of ebook options – I suspect I will be going with whatever is most accessible.
I recommend DeKok and Murder in Seance. That’s the one classic mystery readers are most likely to warm to and DeKok and the Dying Stroller could actually be interesting to read in translation, because it has a dying message that should work in any language.
Thanks for the suggestions Tomcat. I will see if I can track down copies of those. 🙂
DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat by C. Baantjer features several scalaways and worse in this Amsterdam mystery, guessing it takes place in the 70’s. DeKok is a dinosaur by modern standards paired with the bright much younger Dick Vledder. Cunning Pete is “deader than a door nail” (or is it a doornail?) and B&G is missing 3+ million in cold hard cash. Will Dekok (with a kay-oh-kay) solve the mystery?
Interesting story with many possibilities but too many of DeKok’s mannerisms tend to get in the way of the action, too much eyebrow fluttering and lip curling for me. How many times do I have to read kay-oh-kay? And there are black cats sitting in every corner, it’s a wonder he never tripped over one. Now Vledder I liked, DeKok was meh. Not once did Baantjer refer to Warmoes Street Station as just “the station,” it made me feel as though the author assumed his readers were dull-witted. Sadly, the translation was not done well and the editing, I think Intercontinental Publishing was rushing to get the book on the market. I do hope Baantjer’s other books are better than this one.
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