Darkness on the Edge of Town
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Akashic Airlines flight 1595 to Amsterdam."
Sometime between 1250 and 1275 AD, a small group of Dutch farmers dammed the Amstel, an unimpressive river that emptied into a nearby bay called the IJ. They built houses around the dam and the river, and so the village of Amstelredam was born. Over the years, as the village grew, its name eventually shortened to Amsterdam.
Amsterdam came into its own in the seventeenth century, the Dutch Golden Age, when it blossomed into both an important trade center and an equally important cultural center, home to many writers, such as P.C. Hooft and Joost van den Vondel, and artists like Rembrandt van Rijn and Govert Flinck.
The eighteenth century was a relatively quiet time for The Netherlands. While the country rested on its laurels, the city's population remained relatively stable. Only in the course of the nineteenth century did a new sense of vigor arise, and the 1800s are remembered as Amsterdam's second Golden Age.
In fits and starts, the city has continued to grow ever since — in 2017, its population reached around 850,000, including people from roughly 180 countries, making it one of the most international cities in the world.
In today's Amsterdam, almost anything goes. Take the availability of drugs, for example. The so-called coffee shops in which marijuana and hashish are openly sold have been in business since the 1980s. Where else in the world can you, without fear of arrest, ask a cop on the street to light your hand-rolled joint?
Amsterdam has the amenities and, to a certain extent, the feel of a major world city, but one of its most attractive features is its relatively small size. It's easy to navigate on foot, by bike, and via its excellent public transportation network, especially with the semicircular perimeter of its famous Grachtengordel, or ring of concentric canals.
Like any other metropolis, though, Amsterdam also has its dark side, its shadowy corners — in other words, there is also an Amsterdam noir. No matter how beautiful, vital, and cheery a city might be, pure human emotions such as greed, jealousy, and the thirst for revenge will rear their ugly heads ... with all their negative consequences. Amsterdam is a multidimensional city, populated by a wide assortment of social groups, and not all of those groups agree on what constitutes normal social values and mores. This results in a lively mix ... and, as you will see, in problems.
Amsterdam remains a trade center — and that includes illegal trade — which means there exists within its borders a criminal underclass that goes unnoticed by most citizens and visitors yet bubbles evilly beneath the surface of the city's daily life.
Gone are the halcyon days when the most common crime in Amsterdam was bicycle theft. Although the city's rates of murder, rape, violent crime, and total crime are significantly lower than the equivalent rates in the United States, there are murders and rapes, and there is opiate abuse and gang activity and violent crime.
It is perhaps worth noting that Willem Holleeder, the most notorious Dutch criminal in the country's history — a member of the gang that kidnapped beer heir Freddy Heineken in 1983 and held him for a ransom of some twenty million dollars — was a born-and-bred Amsterdammer.
"Your co-captains for this flight are René Appel and Josh Pachter, and our flight crew includes fifteen of The Netherlands' finest crime and literary authors."
In the pages that follow, you'll find fiction by winners of the Golden Noose, which is the award for the best Dutch-language crime novel of the year (Michael Berg won in 2013, and René Appel has won twice, in 1991 and 2001); by award-winning literary writers (Abdelkader Benali won the prestigious Libris Literature Prize in 2003; Hanna Bervoets has won both the Opzij Literature Prize and the BNG Literature Prize; Anneloes Timmerije won the Vrouw & Kultuur Debut Prize in 2006; and Mensje van Keulen's body of work has been honored with the Annie Romein, Charlotte Köhler, and Constantijn Huygens prizes); by established crime writers (including international best seller Herman Koch, Diamond Bullet winner Simon de Waal, Loes den Hollander, and Theo Capel), and by up-and-comers (such as Karin Amatmoekrim, Murat Isik, Walter van den Berg, Max van Olden, and Christine Otten).
"Our in-flight entertainment system features four channels for your reading pleasure."
In our opinion, each of the stories in this volume is a little film, and since one of the threads that ties them all together — along with their Amsterdam setting — is their noir-ness, we have chosen to organize them based on four of the greatest classic Hollywood noir films.
In Out of the Past (1947), directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, a private eye tries in vain to escape from his checkered personal history. Here in Amsterdam Noir, dark deeds from the past impact the present as a Syrian torture victim encounters his tormentor, a forty-year-old murder haunts a new homeowner, a convict on a weekend pass prowls the night, and a father wrestles with the death of his daughter.
In Kiss Me Deadly (1955), directed by Robert Aldrich and based on the novel by Mickey Spillane, Mike Hammer is caught up in a web of intrigue. The couples in this section of the anthology you now hold in your hands also become enmeshed in webs of intrigue, as a young mother falls in love with the wrong person, an elderly apartment dweller helps out a victimized neighbor, and a delivery boy's affair with an older woman takes a turn for the worst.
In Touch of Evil (1958), directed by Orson Welles and starring Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh, corruption in a Mexican border town takes center stage. And corruption takes center stage in Amsterdam Noir as an innocent narrator witnesses the devil at work, a pedophile threatens innocent boys, money once again turns out to be the root of all evil, and a serial killer returns from the dead.
In They Live by Night (1948), directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger, an escaped con falls for his nurse. In this final section, a candlelit canal cruise turns suspenseful, an innocent Muslim girl meets her end at the edge of the city, a pair of punk teens embark on a doomed get-rich-quick scheme, and, to our dismay, we learn that not only the good die young.
"Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent into Schiphol Airport, please make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position and your seat belts are securely fastened. All carry-on luggage should be stowed in the overhead bins or underneath the seat in front of you. We'll be landing in about two pages, and we wish you a spine-tingling stay in the dark side of Amsterdam."
René Appel & Josh Pachter November 2018