DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat by A. C. Baantjer, translated by H. G. Smittenaar

Originally published in 1977 as De Cock en de treurende kater
English translation first published in 1993
DeKok #7
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.