Dutch Mystery Writer Examines the Offbeat

Berkley lives in New York

"We're all criminals," said Dutch author and ex-policeman Janwillem van de Wetering. Van de Wetering's new novel, "Hard Raid" (Pantheon, $14.95), is the 11th and latest in a popular, offbeat and funny series of mysteries set mainly in Amsterdam and featuring a trio of three eccentric and likeable cops: the police commissioner and his subordinates, Adjutant Grijpstra and Sgt. De Gier.

"We all have a criminal life, a repressed and hidden life. In the criminal, it's acted out," said van de Wetering from the comfortable, wood-walled living room of his home along the Maine coast, a rugged landscape where cormorants and seals are frequently to be seen.

'Being a Nice Guy'

"I'd love to rob a bank, for instance. I wouldn't mind taking a few million dollars out of the bank. But I don't do it. I sit here being a nice guy," said the 55-year-old writer, a big man with a mop of thick brown curls, dark boyish eyes and a walrus mustache, who can spend hours playing with the mongrel puppy his wife recently brought home from the pound.

"But if I read about it, or see a movie about it, I can have it all vicariously. When I was reading Simenon to learn French, I was always identifying with the criminals and arguing with Maigret, with the police, telling them it was OK what I was doing, or why I was doing something. I do that in my books, too. I argue with my cops, and the cops argue with the criminals."

In "Hard Rain," the elderly police commissioner (who is Van De Wetering's ideal, and given a first name "because his wife has to speak to him" but no last name "because the ultimate marvel has no name"), a man normally in a state of Zen detachment toward the world, loses his cool with regard to his odious cousin, Willem Fernandus. The malevolent Fernandus, a Nazi collaborator, drug dealer and all-round bad guy, comes from the same milieu as his benevolent cousin and looks very much like him. The Christian names of the two men, incidentally, Jan and Willem, together form the novelist's own.

The cousins hate each other with passion.

Thematic Twins

"That is a very old theme in literature and drama--twins," Van De Wetering points out. "They each select in a different way, and they're very jealous of each other. Of course they have to be in conflict. And of course the (commissioner) has to win. In a book you can manipulate it, say, 'OK, the bad guy dies of cancer or something, and the commissioner goes home.'

"All my books have a 'good' ending--it's a formula. It's too depressing to the public, I think, to say, 'And then they all had a terrible time.' But they didn't really win, they didn't knock down corruption, they just got that one guy.

"But," he added, "I believe there is a happy ending always. In anything we do there is a happy ending, things keep going on. It's like the glass of beer. One guy says, 'I only have half a glass left,' and the other guys says, 'No, no, you still have half a glass to go, and then there's a million beer bottles in the factory coming at you after that.' I think that's what life is--you can't lose."

Janwillem van de Wetering (pronounced "Yan-villum van de Vet-tevin"), who has drunk his share of those million bottles of beer but gave up alcohol and cigarettes not long before this comment, is best known for his Amsterdam series, the first of which, "Outsider in Amsterdam," was made into "Grijpstra and De Gier," Holland's most popular film of 1979. Last year's novel, "The Rattle-Rat" will come to Dutch screens in early 1987.

A Bit of Surrealism

It is these thrillers tinged with surrealism that earn him a comfortable income and in 1984 won him France's prestigious Grand Prix Litterature Policiere. But he is also responsible for a growing list of other publications--no fewer than four in 1986: "Hard Rain"; a thriller in comic book form, "Murder by Remote Control" (Ballantine, $4.95); "Hugh Pine and the Good Place" (Houghton Mifflin), the second of his juveniles about a benevolent but solitude-loving porcupine. (Its predecessor inspired a cartoon shown over network television) and a biography of one of Van De Wetering's idols, the late Dutch Sinologist, statesman and mystery writer, Robert van Gulik.

Previous works include two memoirs detailing his experiences in Zen monasteries, one in Japan ("The Empty Mirror"), the other in Maine ("A Glimpse of Nothingness"), two little-known, non-mystery novels, and a considerable number of short stories. Among these latter were a dozen or so crime tales set in Japan, "Inspector Saito's Small Satori." The next Amsterdam thriller will take De Gier, disenchanted with police work at home, to New Guinea, where he will encounter the Japanese Detective Saito--and strands from two different series will come together.

'Best Projection'

It is more than coincidence that Van De Wetering himself recently returned from a trip to New Guinea, or that De Gier has followed in his globe-trotting footsteps before--to Japan and to Maine. Although there are elements of the author in all of his characters, he most closely identifies with De Gier, whom he calls "my best projection. If everything was ideal, if I wasn't tied down to a home and a child and a dog and responsible living, and if I was a foot taller and wider in the shoulders and younger and handsomer, I'd be like De Gier."

Which is not to say that life is easy for De Gier--or for Grijpstra, a more stolid type, or even for the police commissioner. Although some readers are drawn to his books for their police procedural aspects (the Dutch army later adopted his sniper-routing tactic--driving the sniper crazy with the constant buzz of airplanes overhead), and others are particularly keen on them as travelogues (tourist shops in Holland now sell them in English), for Van De Wetering they are essentially psychological studies. "I'm not really concerned with what's happening in Holland, or to describe the police, or to write thrillers," he explained. "I write about three or four people who slowly get through their lives. I add the plot because it's part of the genre, and people would get upset if I didn't do that. But it doesn't really interest me. I'm concerned with showing the evolution of these few men I've been working with. And they've been changing like I've been changing."

Janwillem van de Wetering, born in 1931, grew up in Rotterdam, the youngest child of a wealthy couple who already had six nearly grown children. His father was president of a Dutch multinational company with tentacles throughout the world, and whereas Janwillem lived in a hard-working and bourgeois city, as children his siblings had known exotic places and pets; he wanted to ride elephants in Indonesia, as they had.

'Always This Presence'

His school was private and exclusive, and he was taken there by chauffeured limousine, as were his peers. Then, in 1940, when he was 9, the Nazis marched into Rotterdam, and his many Jewish classmates disappeared, most of them forever. Afterward, "There was always this presence," he said, "of these kids that weren't there."

Rotterdam suffered severe bombing during the war. His friends killed, his town largely destroyed, Janwillem found his privileged world suddenly a frightening, surreal place. "I thought it was Holland that was the trouble, so I always had this idea to leave." After the war, he first took trips to neighboring countries, then went further afield. Following high school he attended a two-year commercial college in an old castle in the center of Holland; his father was pleased by his apparent interest in business. Then he went off to South Africa, an employee of his father's firm until he was fired for refusing a transfer from Cape Town, which he liked, to Johannesburg. Other jobs followed: in a bookstore, as a driver of a library-on-wheels. So did a stint in a motorcycle gang, "a mad scene" he abandoned after two bad accidents convinced him his behavior was suicidal.

When he was 25, a small paternal legacy ("not very much, because he didn't trust me"), permitted Van De Wetering to go to London, where he spent a year studying philosophy with logician A. J. Ayer and haunting the painting and sculpture halls of the Tate Gallery. When Ayer asked, at the end of it, what he'd learned, he answered that he'd read a lot of Plato and Buddhism, but otherwise found "nothing at all."

Seeking Truth

He wanted to know, "Why I'm alive, why there's so much trouble in the world, and why my Jewish classmates were killed." Ayer told him, "You'll never find that in philosophy," and advised him to not just read about Buddhism, but take a practical, real-life course of it. Van De Wetering followed the advice in Kyoto, Japan's Holy City, where he spent two years seeking truth in a Zen monastery, his ego under siege, his body subjugated to hours of painful cross-legged meditation and to little sleep.

"My suspicion in Holland was that nothing really matters. My conclusion was that you might as well kill yourself," Van De Wetering said. "That changed in Japan, where I was encouraged by the teacher to believe in negativity and nothingness. Rather than blaming me for all the destruction and negativity in my past, he said, 'You're a coward. You never went far enough.' In meditation, he pushed me into negativity until it reached nothingness. But he also insisted that anything I do I do as well as possible. Finally, I saw the harmony between doing your best, which is very Dutch anyway, and believing that it doesn't matter.

"You do your best job--and then you don't care. If it goes well, you don't really accept the praise, and if it turns out badly, you don't really accept the criticism. You just did a good job, as far as you could go." He tries to put this lesson into practice, but is not always able to. It is "an ideal," he said, "Something to live up to. I get very upset when I get a bad review, and I'm tremendously pleased when I get a prize or something. But I wish it wasn't like that."

From Japan he returned home, cabled a friend in Colombia, was sent a plane ticket and a job contract, and flew to South America to work for an industrial chemical company. He liked the work, did well, and was promoted after a year to manager, then realized, "I was going to imitate my father. I didn't want to do that." With Juanita, his Colombian-Jewish bride, and their infant daughter, he went off to Australia, and for a year and a half worked in real estate and read the mystery writing of Arthur Upfield for Australian local color, and the work of the French surrealist Raymond Queneau.

Then Juanita's uncle, a small textiles wholesaler in Amsterdam, died, and Janwillem took over his business. Once he was in Holland, the Dutch authorities came to remind him about the draft--which he had forgotten. They gave him a choice of getting drafted into the Army or joining the police. He chose the latter. By day he dealt in textiles, at night and on weekends he was a member of the Amsterdam constabulary, in which his abilities with language were particularly useful. He only had occasion to draw his gun once--and then not to use it. Dutch police, especially a decade ago, were considerably more benign than some of their European or American counterparts. By the time he left the force in 1975 to move to Maine he had been promoted to the rank of sergeant and just passed his inspector's exam.

He had also become a published author, a lifetime ambition. When he was a child, Van De Wetering was a voracious but highly critical reader. A librarian to whom he complained of the poor quality of the books he found suggested he write some himself. "Yeah, I will," he proclaimed. "I thought it was very easy. But then I tried to write up until I was 40, and it wasn't good enough. I had to accept that. But I didn't have to accept that I would never write. So I put a figure to it. I read somewhere that Henry Miller started writing when he was 40, and I said, 'I'm going to write when I'm 40.' I wrote "The Empty Mirror" when I was 40, my first mystery when I was 43."

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