The House of Dolls by David Hewson

3 Mins read

With his three novelisations of Danish sensation The Killing, British crime writer David Hewson has elevated the TV tie-in novel into a literary event. He’s even started a trend in crime adaptations that build on original television scripts: Erin Kelly is readying her take on Broadchurch for an August release.

Hewson has now returned to writing original characters for a new crime series set in Amsterdam. The House of Dolls is a procedural with plenty of the political elements that made Sarah Lund’s original case in The Killing such a high-stakes investigation. Here, it involves a clean-up campaign proposed by Wim Prins, a puritanical city politician who’s shaking up the relaxed Dutch approach to drugs and prostitution.

We’ll have to wait for the Amsterdam-based critics to give their verdict on the Dutch edition (Poppen Huis) next month, but for me the setting feels authentic. Amsterdam is not merely a stage set for Hewson’s characters. He’s clearly established a rapport with the city in his novel, just as Nicolas Freeling achieved in his Van der Valk series.

The plot involving abducted teenage girls and a gangland war is set amidst De Wallen – the red light district of Amsterdam. Hewson’s central character, former police detective Pieter Vos, lives on a dilapidated houseboat with his wire fox terrier on a canal in the colourful Jordaan district. And the novel is populated with Amsterdam’s ubiquitous cyclists, dope-smoking tourists and late-night drinkers in its traditional Dutch pubs known as brown cafes.

If the evocative setting is convincing, the characters are a little slower to emerge. Vos is still trying cope with the abduction of Anneliese, his 16-year-old daughter, three years earlier. He’s broken up with Anneliese’s mother and spends his days drinking, smoking dope and loitering in the Rijksmuseum. The doll’s house of Petronella Oortman – a 17th century piece held at the museum – is the only clue Vos has to the case. He was sent a picture of the exhibit following his daughter’s abduction.

He’s forced to confront his past when there appears to have been a similar abduction. The politician Wim Prins’s wayward daughter, Katja, is missing and a photo has been sent of an antique porcelain doll stained in blood and holding a hank of blonde hair. And just to complicate matters, Katja’s stepmother is Vos’s ex-partner.

While someone appears intent on dragging Vos back into the doll case, there’s also the possibility that Prins’s clean-up campaign De Nachtwacht (The Nightwatch) – inspired by the vast painting in the Rijksmuseum – has prompted a kidnapping by criminal elements set to lose out from the clampdown. It’s the novel’s gangland characters that really engage you at the start of the novel, simply because Vos is so passive. Local villain Theo Jansen is seeking revenge after being outmanoeuvred by his rival, Jimmy Menzo, a brash hoodlum from the slums of Suriname in South America. A gangland battle is brewing.

Over the course of several frenetic days, these characters’ lives converge as the investigation gathers pace and bodies pile up. Vos joins with Laura Bakker, a trainee from the provinces who is mocked by the big city cops and brings us a valuable outsider’s perspective of Amsterdam. Meanwhile, Wim Prins’s political life becomes complicated by his affair with an ambitious deputy.

After a gradual build-up, The House of Dolls settles into a riveting, labyrinthine plot that’s peppered with action sequences and some shocking revelations. Hewson capably introduces new characters, including a conniving journalist, and there are some stunning set pieces including a high-speed chase that ends in a field of tulips.

My main concern was that the elaborate scenario involving bloodied dolls and a doll’s house seemed a way of dressing up the plot to resemble a lurid serial killer story, which feels like a drag on an otherwise intelligent novel. It’s not a problem for most of the book and when Hewson hits his stride it feels like you’re being treated to a masterclass in crime writing. If you have a penchant for Euro-crime procedurals, The House of Dolls is an essential new series.


CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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