The flood of European crime novels in English translations — an ongoing legacy of the Stieg Larsson phenomenon — continues unabated. The latest contender in the Larsson sweepstakes is Belgian novelist Pieter Aspe. Said to be one of the most popular writers working in the Flemish language, Aspe is the creator of Inspector Pieter Van In and the author of more than 30 novels set in his native city of Bruges. Perhaps inevitably, Aspe has been likened to another Belgian novelist, the astonishingly prolific Georges Simenon, who gave us one of the indelible figures of modern crime fiction, Inspector Jules Maigret.
The primary virtue of “The Midas Murders,” originally published in 1995, is its precise evocation of the medieval city of Bruges, with its architectural beauties and vibrant combination of the ancient and the new. The story begins at a popular nightspot called the Villa Mafia, where a Dutch tourist named Adriaan Frenkel overhears a suspicious, perhaps sinister conversation between a Belgian businessman and a German associate, a conversation that seems to concern Bruges as a center of international tourism. The following morning, the German is found beaten and near death in a public square. Shortly afterward, Frenkel is found dead under similar circumstances. At about this time, terrorists blow up the statue of Guido Gezelle, a 19th-century Flemish poet and national cultural icon. The unknown culprits threaten to bomb other historical and cultural landmarks, further undermining the tourist industry. These apparently isolated incidents eventually intersect, forming the crux of the investigation that follows.
That investigation is led by Aspe’s signature character, Deputy Commissioner Van In, along with an assortment of what appear to be series regulars. These include the openly gay Sgt. Guido Versavel; forensics expert Leo Vanmaele, Van In’s colleague and closest friend on the force; and Assistant District Attorney Hannelore Maartens. Maartens, we are told, is beautiful and brilliant, as well as the youngest assistant D.A. in Bruges. She is also enmeshed in a romantic relationship with Van In, an odd-couple coupling that never feels entirely credible.
Unlike Maartens, Van In is an unappealing character and a tough sell as the hero of an ongoing series. Much of the time, he seems like a collection of characteristics that refuse to coalesce into a rounded human being. He is a middle-aged, overweight alcoholic who smokes too much and appears forever on the verge of a heart attack. He is also financially irresponsible and has fallen several months behind on his mortgage. And although ostensibly involved with Maartens (whose taste in men seems questionable), he maintains a sexual liaison with Veronique, a local prostitute who inspires such rhapsodic passages as the following, which suggests a state of protracted infantilism, rather than romantic or erotic fervor:
“Van In shrugged his shoulders indifferently. The thought of Veronique made him horny. What was he to do? His body reacted to the [expletive] like a hungry baby to a juicy breast.”
Those sentiments bring us to one of the novel’s fundamental problems: language. “The Midas Murders” is a dully written book, with little to offer anyone with the slightest sensitivity to matters of style. The prose ranges from the banal (“suddenly there it was . . . as clear as the nose on his face”) to the bizarre (“The saline nutty flavor of the [caviar] served as foreplay to a refined oral orgasm”). The women who pass through these pages are variously described as “hot chicks,” “dolled-up bimbos” and “lissome wenches” with “pert bosoms.” I don’t know whether the problem lies with Brian Doyle’s translation, the original Flemish text or some combination of the two. Whatever the cause, the effect is dispiriting and ultimately deadening. And the rambling, frequently confusing investigation fails to overcome these stylistic faults.
It’s only fair to note that this is an early novel, written nearly 20 years ago. Writers mature, and “The Midas Murders” may not be representative of Aspe’s later work. Seen strictly on its own terms, it is a minor, easily forgettable effort that does nothing to challenge Simenon’s position in the pantheon of Belgian novelists.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”