Written by Pieter Aspe — If you think Bruges is a picturesque, quaint little Belgian city, you are in for a shock. Author Pieter Aspe reveals the darkness and sham lying behind its pretty façades in this story of murder, terrorism and long hidden Nazi gold. One snowy morning, a German businessman is found dead in the quiet streets of Bruges; apparently he drank himself to death. But what is the link between his death and the blowing up of a statue in the centre of town? Are terrorists at work here?
The man to solve this puzzle is the most unkempt, rough-mannered and instantly unlikable detective since Dalziel – Pieter Van In. He ticks all of the boxes when it comes to cop clichés. Divorced, bankrupt, out of shape, with questionable personal hygiene and as well as a smoking and drinking problem he is prone to fits of depression, bad temper and fainting. Yet, although most of his fellow police officers believe he is mad, we are expected to believe that there is a brilliant brain lurking beneath all that slovenliness, that he inspires huge loyalty from his sergeant Versavel, and that gorgeous women find him irresistible. Last but not least, he also decides to apply chaos theory to the police investigation almost on a whim, after stumbling across a book on the subject… with surprisingly excellent results.
If you can suspend your disbelief surrounding the main character, or picture him as a middle aged, more cerebral James Bond from the provinces, the story does have its intriguing moments. While the plot of lost Nazi treasure and a pan-Teutonic order of knights resurrected for the modern day does have feel of déjà vu about it, there are additional twists that freshen it up. Aside from the excellent, atmospheric description of the small city so heavily dependent on its tourist industry, the author does a good job of conveying the tensions between the Flemish and Walloon populations in Belgium, the anti-German sentiment prevalent in the country, as well as the unsavoury realities of coalition politics.
The most enjoyable scenes by far were the ones which did not feature Van In, such as those describing the preparations for a bombing operation by the caviar-guzzling, luxury-loving mountaineer Nicolai. The opening scenes are also intriguing, with hard-hitting conversations which only start making sense as events unfold. However, the ending is a bit of a shock to the system. It undermines any credibility or ethics which Van In might have as a policeman.
This is the second book in the Van In series, originally published in 1996, which accounts for the slightly old-fashioned policing methods. Although I was disappointed with this particular book, I have heard good things about the series as a whole, and the first book, The Square of Revenge, in particular. Perhaps that is the best place to start. Pieter Aspe is the first Flemish crime author to be translated into English and it has jokingly remarked that readers will probably think he is Swedish or Danish.
Pegasus/Open Road Media
£10.29 (iBook £6.99)
CFL Rating: 2 Stars