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May 27, 2008

Janwillem Van de Wetering

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Joe Queenan is pigging out on glum Scandinavian mystery writers. (UPDATE: Link fixed.)

Of the authors he mentions I've only read a few. I do love the work of one of them -- Janwillem Van de Wetering, though he's anything but glum. Instead, Van de Wetering's tone tends to the whimsical, the playful, and the philosophical. He strolls through situations and personalities, musing about them as he meanders along.

Mysteries are often spoken of as a closed form that questions but inevitably reinforces the status quo. That doesn't hold at all for Van de Wetering's novels, which are about as "open" as can be. Yes, a crime-conundrum is posed and is (usually) solved. But the final effect is searching and marveling -- anything but rote or formulaic, let alone status-quo-reinforcing. (Not that there's anything wrong with reinforcing the status quo!) Though he's working in the police-procedural genre, Van de Wetering's touch is far more akin to the spare and intuitive music of Basho's "Narrow Road to the Deep North" than it is to, say, the soulful drive of Ed McBain.

I'd imagine that anyone who has enjoyed Kurt Vonnegut would enjoy Van de Wetering's mysteries. His novels are eccentric and delightful entertainments as well as fast easy-reading, but they're deep and rewarding experiences too. That's an awfully nice -- and quite addictive -- combo. His memoirs about some time he spent in Zen monasteries are also awfully good. (Here, here, here.)

Read more about Janwillem Van de Wetering at Wikipedia. Here's a helpful list of recommendations by a fan who has read more Van de Wetering than I have. If you want to taste-test Van de Wetering before committing to a book, this very amusing review of a biography of the great Buddhism-diva Alexandra David-Neel should serve. It has the real Van de Wetering flavor.

If I had any energy this morning I'd make the case that Van de Wetering is an under-recognized major artist, and that 99% of the lit-fict crowd is as fleas before his talent and achievement. I do indeed believe all that, but I'm a little short on combative zing today.

Semi-related: I raved about Francis Iles' "Before the Fact," a brilliant British mystery novel that struck me as one of the best 20th century novels I've ever read.



posted by Michael at May 27, 2008


That first link doesn't go to Queenan.

Posted by: Sarah on May 27, 2008 2:40 PM

Thanks, fixed.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 28, 2008 12:38 AM

Very interesting. But Janwillem Van de Wetering is not Scandinavian. He is Dutch.

Posted by: Graham Asher on May 28, 2008 4:24 PM

I know -- weird that Queenan seems to think that Van de Wetering is Scandinavian, no? I should have made that clearer. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 28, 2008 4:47 PM

If I had any energy this morning I'd make the case that Van de Wetering is an under-recognized major artist, and that 99% of the lit-fict crowd is as fleas before his talent and achievement.

Pretty good sentence. Based on my experience reading "The Blond Baboon" I'd say he certainly has a more interesting and original take on life than most of our current lit-fict authors. Maybe he picked some of it up in the Buddhist monastery.

Interesting topic: what is the relationship between the detective novel and religion in the 20th century? Or to put it another way, is the detective novel our era's version of religious allegory?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 28, 2008 6:11 PM

Religion and detection:

Well, Father Brown is an obvious date point.

So is Dorothy Sayers, though her protagonists were not clerics.

Anthony Boucher had two mysteries with a nun as detective, and with a religious element.

In a totally different context: Australian mystifier Arthur Upfield set some of his "Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte" mysteries in the Outback, with Aboriginal mysticism/magic playing a role.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on June 1, 2008 10:28 PM

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