Saturday, July 20, 2013

Vengeance, Bruges-Style


It’s not something we tend to brag about, but most of us do, at some point, crave a little spot of revenge. (Whether or not we ever act on that desire is another matter entirely.)

The catch is, there really isn’t much in the way of well-established guidelines out there to help us accomplish it (should the urge get the better of us, that is). About all we’ve got are the immortal words of Khan*, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Yes, I know that others have said it before, but hey, this is my frame of reference.) And, whether we take that to mean vengeance should only be sought once we can maintain a certain emotional detachment, or that retribution is most effective after a period of time has elapsed, one thing is clear: it should never be doled out immediately... not if either party is to feel the full force of said payback.      

In The Square of Revenge, Belgian author Pieter Aspe serves up a very, very cold dish of revenge... with second and third helpings, even.

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Jewelry stores may not get burgled every day, but it’s certainly not an unheard-of crime. What we’re not accustomed to is a heist in which nary a single glitzy bauble gets carted off. (If not to grab all the gold and jewels you could get your hands on, why go to all the effort of breaking in?)

Such appears to be the case, however, at Ludovic Degroof’s exclusive shop located in the heart of Bruges; the cops arrive at the scene only to find the jewelry safe has been blown open, yet not one valuable seems to be missing. Quite the contrary, in fact... with the most interesting--and baffling--aspect of the crime being where, precisely, everything is found: at the bottom of vats full of aqua regia, a corrosive mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids capable of dissolving gold. The only clue--if it can be called that--left behind in the otherwise-empty safe, is a piece of paper with some sort of weird shape drawn on it.

Inspector Pieter Van In--the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, and well-seasoned detective unlucky enough to be lead investigator--doesn’t know what to make of anything, and neither does the ambitious young assistant district attorney, Hannelore Martens, who--uncharacteristically for someone in her position--shows up at the crime scene to help out. Clearly there must be a major grudge at play, but who, and why, and what on earth might’ve happened in the past to make this bizarre form of revenge somehow appropriate? (With a man as wealthy, influential, and politically-connected as the elderly Degroof, anything is possible, but still...)

When Degroof’s adult children start receiving messages--bearing the same archaic squiggles as the note found in the safe--Van In and Martens understand that the  reverse alchemy at the shop wasn’t a one-off, but rather the tip of the iceberg... and that something far worse is yet to come. 

From the picturesque charm of historic old Bruges, to the posh, über-wealthy neighborhoods inhabited by the Degroofs, to a spartan abbey--reportedly the most-strictly-cloistered in all of Europe, to tiny, rambling towns around the Belgian countryside, Van In and his new sidekick attempt to follow multiple trails of clues. As they let their suspicions guide them, they’re hyper-aware of the ticking of the clock--not only for their own careers, but for everyone involved. The case is a political hot potato, and an unhappy result would likely have Van In and Martens out on early retirements. Worse, the fate of Degroof’s grandson lies in the balance, after the boy is snatched and a most, well... unusual (remember the jewelry store?) ransom demand is made.

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The Square of Revenge is a good, old-fashioned detective mystery (a good thing). All the key elements are there: a perplexing crime, a determined detective (aided or hindered, as the case may be, by his associates), an innocent life in peril, plenty of secrets (which the concerned parties prefer would stay that way), misdirections aplenty, a few red herrings, a bad guy (with a believable axe to grind), and a suitably-twisty plot. 

The backbone of the story, naturally, is Pieter Van In, a complex guy--likable and oh-so-imperfect--and it’s fun meeting him in this, the first of Aspe’s novels to be translated into English. (The series has been ongoing for some time, now, so hopefully all the books which follow will also be translated.) Van In is smart, but his real talent lies in his intuitive powers; he comes to his knowledge as much through mulling things over as by grilling suspects and the like. He has a good sense of humor, which plays well when he’s among friends, and a surprising awkwardness around women, which plays out amusingly around the beautiful, self-assured Hannelore. His relationships with these and other co-workers hint at shared pasts and things to come, and keep the story--and the series--moving forward.

And then, there are the delights of the unusual setting; it isn’t often one reads a book that takes place in Belgium, but Aspe provides enough color to let both the city (Bruges) and the country really come alive. 

The Square of Revenge is a great summer read, whether you’re ensconced in a lounge chair, an airplane seat, on a park bench, or sprawled in front of your air conditioner... but don’t worry if it doesn’t happen to be summer where you are; this one will be fun any time of year.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Mysterious Mousies!
      

*That would be Khan the Klingon (memorably embodied by Ricardo Montalban), in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Yep, I’m a nerd... and I’m fine with that.)

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