The retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country featured in The Times atlas of the world.
The country: Belgium.
The book: The Square of Revenge, by Pieter Aspe, translated by Brian Doyle. Published by Open Road, New York.
The plot: A police night patrol discovers an apparent burglary in an exclusive jeweller’s shop. It quickly emerges that this is more than a simple robbery. A tale of family betrayals, dark secrets and esoteric societies, stretching back for decades, is slowly uncovered. There are a few red herrings before the plot is neatly tied-up with a couple of satisfying twists right at the end.
Where and when: The Belgian city of Bruges, around the turn of the millennium.
The Detectives: The main police protagonist is Assistant Commissioner Pieter Van In, a man “burdened with alimony payments and a mortgage beyond his means.” This evidently poor track record in the romance stakes does not stop him developing a more-than professional relationship with Deputy Public Prosecutor Hannelore Martens as the story unfolds.
Sense of Place: A mixed bag. The story is peppered with references to specific streets and buildings in Bruges; a visitor could use the book as a tourist guide for the city. He or she would not be alone, however; it is made clear that the city is frequently brought to a standstill in the summer by the sheer number of tourists. The author is good at describing the interior of buildings, including a 12th century monastery and the gloomy townhouse inhabited by the patriarch of the jewellery dynasty. But for such an historic and atmospheric setting, there is a curious absence of any genuine feel for the city. Perhaps I chose badly; reviewer Marina Sophia, writing on the CrimeFictionLover website, has praised Aspe’s later novel, The Midas Murders, for revealing the darkness behind the city’s pretty facades, so that may be a better selection. But one thing I did learn; Duvels is a very popular Belgian beer; Van In appears to be making a heroic effort to keep the brewery in business by his own consumption alone.
So, where next? We’re taking a sea journey to the Faroe Islands with Chris Ould’s The Blood Strand. Crime fiction reviewer Marcel Berlins, writing about the book recently in The Times, praised its “convincing atmosphere of the isolated isles.”