DAVID HEWSON on the case of the LITTLE SISTER

Written by DAVID HEWSON

DAVID HEWSON was born in Yorkshire in 1953. He has written sixteen novels, as well as several travel books. Until 2005 he was a weekly columnist for the Sunday Times until becoming a full-time author. David lives in Kent but visits Italy and Amsterdam frequently. 


‘My detective,’ said the lady in the lift in Las Vegas, ‘is a cat. He rides the city on bus bumpers solving mysteries. He’s no ordinary cat.’ (I’d sort of guessed this already). ‘He’s actually a reincarnation of the holy cat of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh.’

You get this kind of revelation at book conventions in America all the time. In certain circles ‘My detective is…’ seems a way of introducing yourself. So here we go.

My detective (in the Amsterdam series, of which the latest, Little Sister appears from Macmillan on May 5) is Pieter Vos, a late thirties scruffy kind of bloke who’s a plain clothes brigadier with the Amsterdam police investigating serious crime. Of which Amsterdam has a lot. Drugs, murder, trafficking. But murder mostly, in the case of Little Sister a puzzling family tragedy with a terrible fallout that sent two ten-year-old girls into detention for killing a fading pop star.

Sometimes characters in books are defined by what they are (a reincarnated cat for example). I like to write about ones made by who they are. Raymond Chandler set down the template for so many crime story protagonists when he famously said, ‘down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything.’

Pieter Vos has never read that script. He is tarnished by a messy private life that’s resulted in him living in a decrepit houseboat on the Prinsengracht canal with just a little dog called Sam for company. He is a little afraid too, of what he’s become and what the world around him Is turning into. He’s got a younger foil, a woman detective from the provinces called Laura Bakker, who probably matches the Marlowe description a bit better. She’s sure of herself and thinks she just might make the world a better place. Vos is a practical, damaged, private man; he’d be happy if he could simply stop it getting worse.

Where did he come from? Sitting by the Prinsengracht canal some years ago watching a scruffy bloke cycle past on a rusty bike, a little dog perched in a carrier on the front. For me books are made by character; events come after. Watching him from a bar called De Eland (now redrawn as the Drie Vaten in the books) I suddenly had a picture of a man who thought his life had fallen to pieces, that he’d nothing to look forward to, no reason to believe he could offer the world anything at all.

And he was wrong. Dead wrong. It just needed something — or rather someone, in the shape of Laura Bakker — to show him why. That was the story of the first Vos book, The House of Dolls. Now we’re on the third in the series and, naturally, I know him and the people around him a lot better.

If Vos displays any kind of heroism it’s a quiet, self-deprecating almost accidental sort: courage through ordinariness. He’s intelligent, tenacious, quick to spot lies, great at gaining insights into other, if not himself. He’s also a lousy manager who never briefs his team properly, terrible at timekeeping, uncaring and almost disrespectful of authority. He’s an Amsterdammer too, not cynical — he’d hate that — but resigned to what he sees as the reality of the world. Bakker, younger, more idealistic, just wants to solve crimes and put people in jail. Vos is old enough and experienced enough to understand that there are plenty more who will take their place.

He’s intensely loyal to those he likes and pretty neutral towards anyone he doesn’t take to. It’s also important to note that there is absolutely no hint of a romantic relationship between him and Bakker. There’s affection, respect, and annoyance between them. Each thinks the other’s a bit of a mess and needs fixing; neither has a clue how this could be done.

I wanted to picture working relationships much like those in real life: ragged, messy, asymmetrical and a little on the edge. All of this will come into play in Little Sister. Vos, who’s tended to treat Bakker as an inexperienced beginner until now, is, after much nagging, going to let her off the leash, with consequences he could never predict. That loyalty issue is going to come to the fore to since he’s going to discover that someone he likes, a colleague who’s saved his skin before, just might have crossed over to the dark side briefly a few years back, with terrible consequences someone has tried to bury.

And much of this story takes place outside Amsterdam, in the empty green countryside known as Waterland, where Bakker is much more at home than a city man like Vos. It’s a story that tests his character, and Bakker’s too, trying to unravel a horrendous tragedy from a decade before. Hope you enjoy it.

The fourth book in the series is now completed by the way and will be with you around this time next year. And we’re well down the road to seeing The House of Dolls on Dutch TV, and hopefully British screens, before long too.

Little Sister by David Hewson is published 5th May by Macmillan, price £14.99 in hardback.
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David Hewson



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