Showing posts with label Dutch THreat. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dutch THreat. Show all posts

16 September 2023

The Scene of the Crime

Pachter in the Begijnhof.

The Scene of the Crime 

by Josh Pachter  

As readers of this blog may remember, I have been selling short fiction to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and other places since the late Sixties. This September, fifty-five years after my first appearance in EQMM, I finally had a novel come out. It’s called Dutch Threat, and it is set in Amsterdam—where my first wife and I lived from 1976 through 1982. 

During those years, I worked as an editor for Excerpta Medica, which published medical textbooks and conference proceedings in English. Their offices were located on the Keizersgracht (“Emperor’s Canal”), one of the Dutch capital’s main ring canals, a short walk from one of my favorite places in the world: the Begijnhof. More often than not, I’d spend my lunch break in this oasis of calm in the middle of the bustling city, and when I sat down to write my first novel I decided to set most of the action there. 

Het Houten Huys.
In fact, the Begijnhof is an ideal location for one particular subgenre of the traditional crime story: the closed-community mystery. 

Just in case anyone here is unfamiliar with the term, a “closed-community” (or, as it is also sometimes called, “closed-circle”) mystery is one that takes place in a location which, by its own nature or due to external circumstances, can only be accessed by a specific and limited group of people—which means that any crime occurring there can only have been committed by one of the people who had access to the scene. 

Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, for example—originally published as Ten Little N-Words and later retitled And Then There Were None—takes place on a small island off England’s Devon coast. There are ten people on the island, and one by one they begin to fall victim to a murderer. Since no one else is on the island, the murderer must be one of the ever-decreasing number of survivors. In the 1965 film version—titled Ten Little Indians—the island is replaced by a snowbound mansion. Either way, it’s a closed-community mystery. 

And the Begijnhof is a classic closed community. Originally established during the Middle Ages—we don’t know exactly when, but it is first mentioned in print in 1389—it is a ring of forty-six gabled brick townhouses (and one of the only two wooden houses remaining in central Amsterdam) built around a central courtyard to house beguines, who were religious women who chose to live in a communal setting without taking vows or fully separating themselves from the world outside. The complex also includes a large off-limits grassy area (known as the “bleaching green” because the beguines laid their laundry there to dry and be whitened by the sun, and now off limits because some of the beguines were buried there), a lovely Dutch church that’s much larger on the inside than seems possible from the outside and—of all things—the English Reformed Church, which holds services in English and sometimes hosts free concerts of religious and secular music. 

The bleaching green.

The last beguine died at the age of eighty-four in 1971, but even today the Begijnhof’s one hundred and five residents are all women, mostly elderly, and the waiting list for a space is years long. 

Originally, there was only one entrance to the complex, though a second was added in 1574 and a third in 1725. Although two of the three access points are open during the day and the courtyard is much more heavily touristed today than it was when I worked nearby, all three doors are locked at night—so a nighttime murder would have to have been committed either by one of the residents or by someone in possession of a key. 

In my book, American graduate student Jack Farmer is sent to The Netherlands to do historical research in the Begijnhof and is granted special permission to move into Het Houten Huys (“The Wooden House”) for the two weeks of his stay. He finds himself—if you’ll forgive an old-fashioned word—smitten with Jet Schilders, the young nurse who checks in regularly on several of the elderly residents … and when one of them is murdered and Jet turns out to be a suspect, Jack teams up with her to investigate the killing and clear her name. 

There are a number of major characters in the book, and one of them is the Begijnhof itself. One of my goals in writing Dutch Threat—in addition to providing a perplexing whodunit with some twists and turns and a satisfying resolution—was to present a compelling portrait of one of my favorite places in the world. If the next time you visit Amsterdam you put the Begijnhof on your must-see list, I’ll feel that I’ve accomplished at least that part of what I set out to accomplish! 

Dutch Threat is available directly from the publisher, Genius Book Publishing, at this link, and also from the usual clicks-and-mortar booksellers.