Crime fiction is one of the most popular and enduring genres in the world – in fact, as many as one in three novels published each year is classified as crime fiction. What makes it such a popular choice for writers? London-based Dutch speaking novelist Anja de Jager tells the story of her personal relationship with crime, and how this influenced her debut novel, A Cold Death in Amsterdam. Join Anja for a discussion on European crime fiction at the Bloody Brunch, part of Noirwich Crime Writing Festival.
I was always going to write about crime, to be honest. My obsession with it started at an early age, triggered by my father’s photos. He was a police detective in Alkmaar, my home town, which lies 35km north of Amsterdam. He had a scrapbook with newspaper clippings and photos of cases that he’d worked on. There were some great pictures of him early on in his career as he was directing the traffic and some of him looking suspiciously undercover during a demonstration in the Sixties. I think it was the trench coat that gave him away.
But there were other photos as well and those were the ones that my brother and I dared each other to look at when my parents were out. My brother is five years older than I am and it was clearly quite dull for him that he had to baby-sit me. So he would get my father’s scrapbook out and we would look at the photos. Especially the nasty ones.
That’s how I saw my first photo of a dead man at seven years old. The victim was a Chinese man, a chef in our local restaurant, and he had been killed with a cleaver by one of his colleagues. I’ll spare everybody the gory details.
What does the daily contact with crime do to the people who investigate it?
I became fixated by those photos. Yes, they made me fascinated by crime but even more so by the people who investigate it. Because as I got a bit older, probably when I was a teenager, I started to think that it was really strange to have photos like that in the house. Who in their right mind would want to have those gruesome pictures lying around?
But later I started to understand that for my father these weren’t macabre photos. For him this was just his job. This was what he did all day and this is what he would encounter when he’d go to work. Situations like these were his day-to-day. Because a policeman’s job isn’t easy. Every day he would meet victims, criminals and suspects. And of course his colleagues who saw the world in the same way he did.
It really drove what I wanted to write about: what does the daily contact with crime do to the people who investigate it? Their view of what’s normal is skewed compared to the rest of us. This is what I’ve explored in my novel A Cold Death in Amsterdam. I wanted the book to be a character study of a policewoman, Detective Lotte Meerman, who has just come through a gruelling investigation only to find herself caught up in a new case. In addition, I loved depicting what Amsterdam is like in winter, when it’s cold and all the tourists have left. And of course I’ve given my main character a scrapbook and an interest in looking at photos.