Reading novels set in, or nonfiction books about Belgium for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge hasn’t been easy. In 2018 I featured Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn, set in both Brussels and Paris in the late 15th century, and before that in 2015 it was Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58, also set in Brussels but during the 1958 World’s Fair. Other than that, I haven’t had much luck. But last year I struck gold when I discovered Peiter Aspe’s Pieter Van In series of Belgian mysteries set in the picturesque city of Bruge. Instead of starting at the beginning I jumped in at the end with The Fourth Figure, the fourth novel in the series. In the end I was left pleasantly surprised and vowed to read the others. Just recently through my public library’s Overdrive portal I secured a Kindle edition of From Bruges with Love, the series’ third installment. In contrast to the mostly lukewarm reviews it received on Amazon, I enjoyed From Bruges with Love and fully intend to read the other Inspector Van In books.
When the Vermast family uncovers a decades-old skeleton in their backyard while renovating their antique farmhouse and foul play is suspected, Inspector Pieter Van In is tasked with discovering the identity of both the victim and those who murdered him. But once Van In learns the farmhouse’s former owner is a high profile Belgian businessman, who later donated the property to a right-wing charity completely devoid of expenditures or investments, his investigation points to a growing list of suspects from the highest echelons of Belgium’s political and business elite. All of this while trying to abstain from smoking, drinking and eating unhealthily as a promise to his wife (not to mention conducting the investigation in strict accordance with the law, since she’s a deputy public prosecutor) who’s pregnant with their first child.
Even though I don’t consider myself an aficionado of mysteries and crime novels I enjoy foreign representatives of these genres. While criminal investigators in the United States and around the world all must deal with intra-agency rivalries, jurisdictional turf wars and toxic internal politics, Van In’s must navigate a frustrating assortment of conflicting legal entities thanks to Belgium’s somewhat chaotic de-federalized binational structure. In addition, Van In’s assisting investigator as well as best friend is an out and proud gay man, the two sharing a trust and intimacy not easily found in American novels of this type.
But typical of so many thrillers and police whodunnits, Van In comes across as a familiar, perhaps even warranted archetype. A veteran of his trade, he’s cynical, gruff and bold. Confrontational at times, he’s nevertheless not a violent man. But he can throw a punch if he needs to, and on those rare occasions when he does, he lands it with maximum effect. Above all, he’s smart and capable as hell. Aspe sums up Van In’s secret to success keeping in mind
Detective work is a combination of routine and procedures, an approach that rarely delivers. The big breakthrough in a case is almost always the result of an unforeseen circumstance, a spontaneous confession, an unexpected turn of events, or just pure luck.
I said it last year and I’ll say it again. Be prepared to see other books from this enjoyable series featured on my blog.