Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Square of Revenge: Pieter Aspe

This book by Pieter Aspe is the first novel in a long-running popular mystery series set in Bruges, Belgium. It was first published in 1995, but was only published in an English language edition this year. The novel opens with the apparent robbery of an upscale jewelry store. Sergeant Guido Versavel and another policeman discover the situation toward the end of their nightshift while patroling the neighborhood. Several persons are called to the scene of the crime.

Newly appointed Deputy Public Prosecutor Hannelore Martens is called into the case somewhat prematurely. It is her first case and she is eager to get involved and worried about what her correct role is. Ghislain Degroof, the proprietor of Degroof Diamonds and Jewelry, is awakened early to find that his establishment has been broken into. His father, Ludovic Degroof, is a very rich and powerful man in Bruges.

After the scene has been evaluated, it is discovered that all of the jewelry has been destroyed, not stolen. The owner and the police are mystified. The chief commissioner of the police calls in Commissioner Van In, an experienced detective who would not normally be his first choice. The elder Degroof has enough pull to tell the Police Commissioner to hold back on the effort to apprehend the culprits.

And here begins a tale of revenge... Further crimes are committed, affecting the Degroof family, and the stakes get higher and higher. Soon the police cannot ignore the investigation.

I enjoyed this book for several reasons. Some books are strong in plot development, but not so good with characterization. Some books focus on characterization, and the plot gets lost. This book strikes a good balance.

The tone was light, and entertaining. Usually I like a more serious tone, but this book kept me involved. Hannelore Martens and Commissioner Van In are unusual protagonists for a police procedural.  They develop an unlikely partnership.

I liked reading a story set in Belgium and especially Bruges. I know very little about that area, but I had seen the movie In Bruges, so I knew what a storybook city that is, as the movie constantly reminds one. There are crime fiction authors from Belgium (Georges Simenon, for one) and at least some of the Henry Castang series by Nicholas Freeling is set in Brussels, but this is the first series set in Belgium or Bruges that I have encountered.

One of the things I learned from this book, and from an interview with the author at the Publisher's Weekly website, is that Belgium is divided into a Dutch part, known as Flanders, and a French part, known as Wallonia. In that interview, Pieter Aspe describes Belgians as he sees them:
Belgians are what we call “bourgondisch.” It means that they enjoy life, including good food and a nice drink. We also have a café culture, so we often go for a drink in the nearest pub. In the end, I think Belgians, when it comes down to culture, are more like the Spanish, French, or Italian. In contrast to Van In, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian detectives are more cold and businesslike.
And definitely, in this book, everyone eats and drinks with relish.

One unusual thing about this book was that there is no murder to be investigated. It is definitely a crime novel, and there are crimes solved in this book, but I did wonder for about half of the book when the death would occur. Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... recently posted a very interesting overview of a book by two French authors which also did not included the investigation of a death: Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Treachery in Bordeaux. Maybe this is more common in European mysteries?

In the reviews section of the Amazon page for The Square of Revenge, this reviewer comment is cited: “A very likable and very politically incorrect group of detectives. Humor is permanent, the plot is well constructed, and the whole story is extremely exotic.” I agree. The series has been compared to the Maigret series by Georges Simenon. I don't agree with that, but I haven't read Simenon in a long time.

The second book in the series, The Midas Murders, will be published in the US in December 2013. The Square of Revenge is not perfect by any means, but it is well done for the first book in a series. I plan to read the next book in the series to follow up on the entertaining and charming characters.

This book was provided for review by Open Road Integrated Media via NetGalley.

Also reviewed here:
FictionFan's Book Reviews
Raven Crime Reads
Patrice's Reading Corner

18 comments:

  1. TracyK.: I have been seeing this book in bookstores. When the TBR piles are a little lower I will go looking for it.

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    1. Bill, I think you will enjoy it when you read it. I need to whittle down my TBR piles also ... drastically.

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  2. Great review Tracy, I haven't seen this book here yet but will look out for it. I loved the movie In Bruges too and I like the idea of a novel set there. I've been asked more than once for recommendations of mysteries without murders so i shall have to add this one to what is a very short list

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    1. Thanks, Bernadette. We just rewatched In Bruges after I read this book. Reading this book without a murder made me aware how much my expectations affect how I approach a book.

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  3. Tracy, I have this in mynetgalley book shelf too! It's next on my agenda. Looking forward to it after this review!

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    1. Peggy, I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

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  4. Tracy,
    I was humming and hawing over this one - you might just have tipped the scales now!
    Spooky - have you been signed up to Net Galley long? I had an invite a week or two ago for a couple of titles, which I will have to get to soon. I was a bit like a kid in a sweet shop when I looked at the site, so need to clear down some titles and give feedback before thinking about asking for anything else. I think I had a Gordon Gecko - "Greed is good moment!"

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    1. Col, I just signed on to NetGalley in April or May. I was really interested in some titles at first, then I realized I am too committed to reading my own books to add more. So I have to figure out how to balance reading from NetGalley with getting through my own books.

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  5. Tracy - First, thanks very much for the kind mention. I've heard about this one in various places, and your fine review is making me all the more interested in reading it. It's nice at least once in a while to read about a crime that isn't murder.

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    1. Margot, This novel has a lovely setting and interesting characters. I think you would like it.

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  6. Hi, Tracy--
    I think this blog post is extremely helpful to anyone who wants to read a crime novel set in Bruges! Belgium is a complex nation, and especially so for us living in the U.S. (In American history, Bruges was extremely important in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge.) All the more reason to become acquainted with this author and this book.

    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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    1. Judith, thanks for the information about Bruges and the Battle of the Bulge. I am very interested in World War II history but still have so much to learn. I did not realize there was a connection.

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  7. Bruges is of course a tiny and beautiful spot so in a way I'm glad to hear there is no death in this book :) Sounds really great TracyK, will definitely see if I can find a hard copy of this one - thanks very much.

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    1. Sergio, I plan to get a hard copy of the 2nd one. I still am not really comfortable reading e-books. Although it is really nice to be able to highlight passages.

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  8. I'd read this for both the Belgian setting and the fct that there is no murder. There ought to be a lot more novels that focus on crime other than murder. It's such a rarity to find a book -- that isn't a caper novel -- about theft, kidnapping, forgery without one murder in it as well. I'd gladly read more books about non-murderous criminal investigation if I coudl find them. Art forgery, for instance, is one of the most fascnating of non-violent crimes. There are several very good books (both fiction and non-ficiton) featuring art crime.

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    1. Now you have me intrigued, John. I did look for a few art mysteries and you are right, there are some that look interesting. I have never cared for true crime books, but that is because I don't want to read about real murders. Art crime in non-fiction could be very interesting. My husband may even have some like that. Do you have suggestions?

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  9. I hadn't heard of this book, but think I should look for it, because I do love Bruges. In fact I was in Bruges during the shooting of that film, we greatly enjoyed watching the process, and I do think it's a really excellent film.

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    1. Moira, I have re-watched In Bruges a couple of times, and each time the ending surprises me. I like the main characters a lot. This book is, of course, much less gritty but sees Bruges from a different perspective. And I am very envious of you, visiting Bruges. Traveling isn't my thing, but that city is very appealing to me.

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