The Crime Fiction Alphabet meets A Month of Dutch Literature: V is for Van der Vlugt

Now, where was I?

Four days ago I had a post written in my head, but before I could capture it I lost my internet connection. Completely.

I missed many my link to other readers, but without it for a few days I did a lot more reading. And I used the half hour a day available to me a the library to check email and continue my search for a job.

I’m still lacking a wireless connection, but for the moment I have salvaged a wired link and so I will try to pull that post out of the back of my mind …

Shadow Sister by Simone Van Der Vlugt seemed to be the perfect book. I had enjoyed the author’s first book, which I wrote about here, and so her second would nicely fill the V slot in my Crime Fiction Alphabet. And letter V fell in the middle of June,  so that the same book would fall nicely for A Month of Dutch Literature.

It was too perfect. I’m afraid the book was rather disappointing. It fell into the classic trap for crime fiction, of compromising characters for the sake of the plot. And I’m afraid there were problems with the plot too.

I must say now that this isn’t going to be a hatchet job. There were good things, things I liked, and I had no problem reading to the end. But I was disappointed.

The story began promisingly.

“All of a sudden he’s got a knife. The flash as he draws it is so unexpected fear paralyses me. I try to speak, but the sound dies in my throat. I can only stare at the blade glinting in the light streaming through the classroom window.”

Lydia taught in a language school. It could be difficult, but she cared, she felt she was doing good, and she was professional.

Her husband was less happy. Particularly when Lydia acceded to her school’s wish to deal with the student who pulled a knife on her quietly, in-house, to try to prevent damage to its reputation.

But Elisa, her twin sister, understood. The two woman were very different. Lydia, the teacher, was married with a child, organised, she knew where she was going in life. Elisa though was single, a photographer, and much more spontaneous in how she lived her life. Yes, two very different women, but they were joined by a shared history and they understood each other perfectly.

Until, just days after the knife incident, Lydia is killed.

And then the story is split. Between Lydia and the days leading up to her death, and Elisa in the days after as she grieved and searched for answers. It’s a very effective structure, drawing the reader into each life, each situation, and then unsettling as the realisation surfaces that one of those women is dead.

And initially I believed in them both, but things went a little wrong. Lydia’s character was compromised as her story was used to make points about immigrants and cultural differences. They were valid points, but they were pushed that little bit too hard. And Elisa’s character was compromised by the author’s decision push other aspects of her grief to one side and focus only on her need to know what happened.

I wondered if there was a very different novel trying to get out here. A story of family, culture and loss, that had been compromised by the need, or wish, to produce a book that sat more naturally in the crime fiction genre …

As a murder mystery Shadow Sister started well, but then it faltered. Because secondary characters were so very lightly sketched. Because so many secrets emerged. And because there were too many times when characters said and did things that I couldn’t believe in order to make the plot work.

And I’m afraid the ending didn’t work either. I knew when a killer was unmasked sixty pages before the end that there would be another twist to come. And there was, a very predictable twist that I’ve seen so many times before.

After that though, there was a final moment that worked beautifully, And there had been other moments before.

That made the weaknesses, the crime fiction clichés, so frustrating. Because those high points reminded me that Simone Van der Vlugt can write wonderful crime fiction, and made me think that she might do well to bend, or even break, the conventions of the genre …

Translated by Michele Hutchison


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week W is for … ?

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