Belgian crime-fiction veteran Aspe's English-language debut thriller, originally published in Europe in 1995, introduces readers to chain-smoking, perpetually out-of-sorts DI Pieter Van In.
With a quirky character that is equal parts Simenon and Tati, this lighthearted novel has a decidedly European sensibility, but why it has taken so long for the series to reach U.S. shores is a mystery. In this installment, Van In investigates an odd jewelry store break-in in atmospheric Bruges. The gems were not stolen, but left melted down in acid. The wealthy and politically influential owner, Degroof, is less concerned about solving the case than preventing word about the crime from getting out. Van In quickly determines it was an act of revenge for something that happened years ago. Uneasily teamed with the beautiful prosecutor Hannelore Martins, who is charmed by his quirks and impressed by his deductive talents, Van In must cut through bureaucratic resistance to learn why one of Degroof's daughters has been institutionalized and another is in a nunnery—and why the jeweler's grandson has been kidnapped. Solving the crimes involves deciphering Latin word squares that are left with family members. While the breezy bantering of Van In and Hannelore, and their slowly developing romantic attraction, carry the book, Aspe satisfies the demands of a good mystery with his clever plotting and brisk pacing. The book is stocked with lively characters on both sides of the law, including a bad guy forced to impersonate a priest.
For those who discovered the Belgian city depicted here in the 2008 film In Bruges, this book will be a welcome return—with plenty more to come via translations of more Van In books, one hopes.