May 31, 2010

Crime Writing Among the Flemings


Search the phrase Belgian crime writing on the Internet and thousands of references to Georges Simenon pop up, even though Simenon spent most of his life in France and a lengthy period in the United States. As with Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot, most of us need to be reminded that Simenon was in fact born Belgian and not French. Because of the cultural connection between southern Belgium and France we also often overlook the rich culture of northern Belgium, or Flanders.

Although the Walloon or French literary community of Belgium primarily looks toward Paris, the Netherlandic speakers of Flanders defiantly assert their independence from the Dutch, whose language is essentially the same. Under Napoleon's rule the southern Netherlandic speakers developed differently and rebelled against the Dutch monarchy. Flemish crime writers deny looking to their linguistic comrades in Holland for influence and also reject any relationship with the Walloon literary community. The dean of Flemish crime writers, Bob Mendes, says of Franco-Belgian writers, We don't know each other, not even by name and reputation.

Perhaps because they have avoided both relationships, Flemish writers are less known in the world at large, though they are very popular at home. The quality of their work, however, is now gaining some notice outside Flanders.

Bob Mendes (b. 1928, as David Mendes) is a two time winner of the Golden Noose award and the 2004 Diamond Bullet for crime writing in Dutch/Flemish. Mendes became an accountant in 1952 and had a prominent career, auditing many major corporations. He was very active in sports, managing Belgium's leading basketball team and winning several championships. He did not begin his literary career until he was in his fifties. His first book was a collection of poems, Met rook geschreven (1984, Written with Smoke). In 1986, he published his first novel, Bestemming terreur (Destination Terror), but hit his stride two years later with Een dag van schaamte ( 1988, A day of shame). This thriller was based upon the 1985 disaster in which rioting by Liverpool soccer fans resulted in the deaths of 39 Juventus fans. Since then he has published eleven thrillers, the most notable of which are Het Chunnel Syndrome (1989, The Chunnel Syndrome), Vergelding (1993, trans. Vengeance: Prelude to Saddam's War), Link (1994), Meedogenloos (1995, Without Pity), and De kracht van het vuur (1996, The Power of Fire), which is in the process of being filmed. He also publishes plays and short stories. Mendes's best crime writing is of the style which the Dutch and Flemish call faction. Stories are ripped from the headlines and incorporate detailed realism. Mendes employs his knowledge of corporate behavior and politics, mingling it with strong social criticism.

Jef Geeraerts (b.1930, as Jozef Adriaan Geeraerts)
Jef Geeraerts began his writing career after serving as an administrator in the Belgian Congo. His relationship with the natives and the natural surroundings of the Congo caused him a spiritual crisis when he left the newly independent Congo in 1960. It took him years to regain his balance, translating and writing. His first novel was entitled Ik ben maar een neger (1962, But I Am Black), but he became a household name in Belgium with his novel Gangreen 1: Black Venus, which was accused of being both racist and pornographic. Gangreen 2: De goede moordenaar (Gangrene 2: The Good Assassin) described the activities of Belgian paratroopers in the Congo, infuriated the army, and got Geeraerts kicked out of the reserves. In the 1980s he moved more into crime novels and was an immediate success, winning a Golden Noose in 1986 for De zaak Alzheimer (The Alzheimer Matter). One of his best sellers was De PG, about a corrupt official of the Opus Dei. His police detectives Vincke and Verstuyft are a familiar duo in Flanders and travel the world solving cases. His recent novel Zand (Sand) brings them to Dallas, Texas. Though Geeraerts' novels are often in a classic mode: a body is discovered and the detectives work to the solution, he uses the form to criticize Western society. They call me an author, Geeraerts once said, but primarily I am a journalist. My books deal with situations I know through and through, about regions where I lived long enough to get a good sense of them, about things I experienced personally.

Piet Teigeler (B. 1936)
Recently elected president of the international Association of Crime Writers, Piet Teigeler lives in Spain. Influenced by the novels of Janwillem van der Wetering, he created Police Commissioner Carpentier and Inspector Dewit as heroes of a series of police procedurals. The cops, says Teigeler, have their doubts about the righteousness of what they do, and once in a while one doesn't know who the real villains are. His newest novel Het lid van Semini (The member of Semini) is an epic murder mystery set during the religious wars of the 1600s, beginning in Seville and ending in Antwerp. De zwarte dood (Black Death)won the year 2000 Hercule Poirot prize for best Flemish crime novel and his Dodenakker (Cemetery) was nominated for the same prize in 2003.

Other Notable Flemish Crime Writers

Pieter Aspe (b. 1953 as Pierre Aspeslag) is perhaps the most popular of the Flemish writers. Despite there being only about 1.3 million Flemish speakers, Aspe has sold some 300,000 books. He writes two a year featuring police commissioner Pieter Van In and prosecutor Hannelore Martens-reeks. De kinderen van Chronos (1997, The Children of Chronos), Blauw bloed (2000, Blue Blood) and Zoenoffer (2001) He is often compared to Dutch writer A. C. Baantjer, who is similarly prolific.

Stan Lauryssens (b. 1946) had a celebrated career as a journalist, becoming known for his interviews with the surviving members of Hitler's inner circle and his book on living next door to Salvador Dali. His first thriller, Zwarte sneeuw (Black Snow) was an immediate success and was followed by Dode lijken (Dead Corpses, 2003) and Rode rozen (Red Roses, 2004). Doder dan dood (2005, Deader than Dead) and the forthcoming Bloter dan bloot (More Than Naked). Before he took up crime writing, Lauryssens had a bit of prison experience himself after being convicted of phony investment schemes.


The major trend in Flemish crime writing is: being Flemish. After decades of reading translated books about Commissaires and Commishes from the megacities of the world, the Flemish all of a sudden discovered their own little can of worms: incredible crimes being committed right there where we all live. It works wonders. Translated bestsellers still do well, but now Flemish crime writers regularly appear on bestseller lists, and sometime lead them. - Piet Teigeler

Flemish Crime-writing Web Sites


Not many Flemish crime and thriller writers have been translated into English. A few who are:

  • Gangrene (a Richard Seaver Book) by Jef Geeraerts, J Swan (Translator) Viking Press
  • Black Ulysses by Jef Geeraerts. Viking Press.
  • The Man Who Invented the Third Reich: the Life and Times of Arthur Moeller Van Den Bruck by Lauryssens, Stan. Sutton Publishing (non-fiction).
  • Vengeance: Prelude to Saddam's War by Bob Mendes. Trans. H.G. Smittenaar. (Intercontinental Publishing).
  • The Chunnel Syndrome by Bob Mendes. Pendulum Press (an e-book)
Jim Madison Davis

Prof. Jim Madison Davis is the author of several crime novels and several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Van Gogh Conspiracy. A President Worldwide of the International Association of Crime Writers, he teaches novel and filmscript writing in the Professional Writing Program of the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.



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