De man uit de verte

By Havank (Hans van der Kallen)

Between 1935 and about 1975, Havank was the most popular, most widely read Dutch author. Therefore it’s no wonder that he has never received much critical acclaim. Still, i consider him not only an author of fine, formulaic mystery novels, but also as the Dutch Wodehouse. But where Wodehouse received acclaim for his similes and virtuoso use of language, Havank was derided for his Popish boarding-school type of humour.

  • Author: Havank (Hans van der Kallen)
  • Title: De man uit de verte
  • Pages: 190
  • Published: 1970 (1937)
  • Publisher: A.W. Bruna en Zoon
  • ISBN: 90 229 0110 7

Oh well… It’s been years since I last read a Havank from front to back. My father first put me on to them, just as he first gave me Judge Dee to read. Within two years after leaving home for Leyden, I had a complete collection. Not complete in the sense of having all the various prints, but I did have all the stories, and that’s what counts. Even though I would like the pre-war stories in a pre-war edition with pre-war spelling.

You see, nowadays the main claim to fame of the Havank series is not the story between the boards, but the cover of the pocket editions. These cheap ‘Zwarte Beertjes’ had covers by the internationally renowned artist Dick Bruna, father of Nijntje. Speaking for myself, I don’t care. I care for the pages between the covers.

There is a clear progression in Havank’s output. Not only from stories centered around Silvere to stories centered around his nominal subordinate Charles C.M. Carlier, but also from reasonable tightly plotted to outright outré.

De Man in de Verte (The Man in the Distance) is an early one, almost a police procedural, except that it’s clear that Havank didn’t have the faintest clue about how the police actually did work; he appears to have cribbed it all from Wallace. The novel before this one, the one I’m reading now, Het probleem van de twee hulzen, is worse. Half the book details the investigation of a house — and I don’t believe a word of it.

But, and this is the important bit, where Havank and Wodehouse touch close, even though Havank would have preferred to be compared to Dickens, both Havank and Wodehouse don’t write about the real, gritty, realistic world. They both paint something akin to a musical comedy. Wodehouse lighter, about the English upper classes, Havank seedier, about French criminals and flics, but just as comedic, just as unreal, just as liberating.

Here everyone moves according to his or her allotted place (but that’s not always a pleasure, especially when Havank lets go against Eastern European immigrants, or people with Jewish traits), people can smoke a pipe, a cigar and two cigarettes in the scope of a short conversation — and the attractive Chief Inspector of the Sûreté gets the prettiest girl on the beach, who is naturally innocent.

Good, clean, period fun, that’s my opinion, and I intend to stick to it.