I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Fictional detectives come in all flavors these days, heirs to an august tradition stretching back to the Bible. My dotty 9th grade English teacher, Miss Hill, always insisted that Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone was the first mystery novel, but clearly she hadn’t read the 12th Century Chinese tales of the magistrate cum sleuth Judge Dee, whose exploits inspired the early works of Janwillem van de Wetering.
A visit to any Barnes & Noble quickly reveals how the genre has matured. This literary form has gone blissfully global. Start with classic Poe stories, vault over to the Conan Doyle department, sample a few “Thinking Machine” tales by Jacques Futrelle, immerse yourself in hard-boiled Hammet or Chandler, and zap! after WWII a veritable herd of practitioners flood the field with tough-talking ward-heelers, mean-spirited women, medieval monks, ethnic minorities, eccentric British ladies, Native Americans, antique dealers, rabbis, priests, beach bums, forensic investigators, gourmets, epigrammatic Belgians…everyone searching for the body and whodunit: Set in South Africa, Hong Kong, Chicago, Mexico City, Bogota. They win, they lose, they get beat up, they bleed, they light another Camel and walk down the deserted, fog-lit street, waiting for the next two-bit loser and fleabag flophouse on the wrong side of the tracks.
Janwillem van de Wetering’s life reads like the stuff of fiction: born to a Dutch merchant family, educated in economics and philosophy, lived in South America, Africa, Australia, and for two years studied Zen in a Kyoto monastery. Then, after seven years as a part-time patrol cop in Amsterdam, he moved to Maine in 1975 where he first wrote two non-fiction books about his Buddhist experiences. The “Dutch Cop” series of 12 novels which followed distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack by lively, idiosyncratic prose and Zen sensibilities. Two cops, their boss, and colleagues move through their careers in search of the meaningful and the meaningless, reflecting as they go, to a background of jazz. In last year’s Just A Corpse At Twilight the cops returned after an eight year hiatus, to the delight of critics. This summer marks the publication of The Hollow-Eyed Angel (Soho Books), a prequel set in New York City.
Last summer I journeyed to Janwillem’s Maine compound to begin our discussions. Later he came to Manhattan to finish the talk one long night after viewing Mabou Mines’ Zen-inspired An Epidog at HERE!, which somehow seemed altogether appropriate.
Janwillem van de Wetering You’re serious about this?
Stanley Moss Serious. Why do you think your first book, The Empty Mirror, is still your best book?
JVW I left the monastery in 1958, started ideas on it, wrote it immediately. The first draft was very shallow and unthought. I wrote it again in the summer of 1960, threw that away, then wrote it again in 1970. In the first draft I was explaining everything, and I didn’t in the last draft. I wrote it in no time at all, just 10 days or so.
SM 10 days?—it’s about 60,000 words!
JVW Well, that’s nothing.
SM Six-thousand words a day?
JVW Simenon wrote a book in 11 hours. They locked him up in a glass cage with a typewriter and a piss pot. And some coffee and cigarettes. And also, I wrote it in my evenings because during the day I worked! I would write a chapter, read it to Juanita, my wife, write the next chapter. I just had a feel for it. I reread it and I thought it was good.
I’m going to write a third Zen book called After Zen, and it should come out the same way, very quickly. Because I’ve been thinking about it for such a long time. I have piles of notes, a file in my computer called “Ideas,” like 400 pages. I never look at it when I’m writing. It’s just in my subconscious.
SM Ambiguity seems to be a big factor in everything that you write. The double nature of things.
JVW But if you see it both ways you’re still in duality and you’re still nowhere. When I left my second Zen teacher I was very upset, like a big divorce. I knew I was giving up everything, and certainly Buddhism. I had a series of dreams in which my first teacher appeared, totally disinterested in my complaining. And although he acknowledged that I’d wasted my time in a terrible place, it didn’t really perturb him.
SM After living as a Zen monk, you embarked on this adventure with detectives. I know it stems from fascination with a book which you discovered in Japan.
JVW Inspector Saito’s Small Satori was inspired by the Judge Dee stories of Robert von Gulik.
SM You recreated Judge Dee, the superior man, who has more insight, moves the pieces around the board, and then applies torture to gain confession. Your character, Saito pursues similar methods.
JVW Yeah, but Saito has a degree in philosophy and psychology, and he’s very wealthy. He’s detached. He just does it for something to do, because he doesn’t believe in anything.
SM Your modern-day inspector Saito moves through more forms than just the conventional crime model. There’s the unconventional crime and unconventional solution. In one story, your hero rides up into the mountains and tricks some motorcycle punks into revealing their part in the crime. Quite often, inspector Saito dupes people into confessing in order to get the evidence he needs. In the United States, that would be entrapment, but then Saito isn’t interested in arresting his victims. Isn’t he rather amoral?
JVW It has to do with police philosophy. I learned about that when I studied a book called Parallel Cases from Under the Pear Tree that contains 144 cases solved by Chinese magistrates in antiquity. Confucianism wasn’t concerned with crime and punishment but with maintaining civilian peace of mind. Dutch criminal law rethinks those ancient premises, as I learned, to my surprise, when I prepared for a police inspector examination in Amsterdam. It is not the cop’s duty to drag people screaming and shouting into court and then kick them into some dank jail cell. Here in America the official attitude seems to be to judge more harshly. Every year 80,000 more prisoners have to be accommodated. There are about 10 times more Americans in jail percentage-wise than Dutchmen. Even so, I’d rather be in A-mer-i-ca.
JVW Bigger backdrop. Huge stage. The mountains. Original and live jazz. Travel 6,000 miles and still pay in greenbacks. No overpopulation as yet. On the Maine coast I can go sailing without seeing another boat all day. Better movies. Key lime pie. Big lobster roll and a cup of seafood chowder for under 10 bucks.
SM Don’t you prefer Holland’s socialism? The friendly morals out there?
JVW Nah. Morals…morals are about how to live, that has never been my field of inquiry. Why to live. Why live at all? Your parents tell you God is in heaven and he created all these exercises to test us. We were made in his image. I lived in a rich environment, my parents were well-to-do, and they had a nice car and I went to a good school. Everything seemed to be just dandy. But then, like in Buddhist legend, I began to notice things that didn’t fit in. The Buddha was kept by his father in extreme luxury, and then he escaped from the palace and saw people dying, and living in poverty and being miserable. And of course he couldn’t accept that. I was playing in the street and there was a little boy who looked just like me, but was poorly dressed. Then I found out he lived in a basement without heat. And later his father got hurt in a riot against the military police. They were on horses and they beat people, slashed at them with swords, blood flowing in the streets. And these people rioted because they were hungry. It didn’t fit in with what I’d been told. If there was a God on a cloud devising that kind of exercise, the guy was fucked up. I was still wondering about that when the real shit started happening, when they started bombing Rotterdam, where I lived at the time. This time they were going to kill me. They were flying so low I could see their faces as they opened the sliding doors, throwing out bombs by hand, and I said, “Hey. Are they trying to kill me?” And my father said, “Yeah.” He did a lot of business with Germans, they were supposed to be good guys. And suddenly they were bad guys. And then the Jews being killed, and I was the only surviving member of my class at school, simply because I wasn’t Jewish. Nazi morals. The newspapers were all Nazi controlled by then and they told us Jewish kids had to be deported. Pure bullshit, but there it was in black and white, official. I had to throw the morals out. These morals didn’t work. Moses on the Mount and The Ten Commandments. I just had to get rid of it all.
SM And then start from zero?
JVW Even better. Stay in zero. Zero is the most fascinating idea that ever hit me. I went to a mathematical high school, and we had this gay female teacher. She had a straight haircut, and she liked wearing uniforms. She lectured us about zero. If you multiply it, or if you divide by it, everything becomes zero. Zero is a ring, with nothing in it. But what if you removed the ring? By that time I had decided I would commit suicide. I was 15, maybe, and it was going to be a philosophical suicide. It was going to be a protest. So if I died—because I was still thinking like a Protestant—I would get to the other side of death, and I’d be closer to God. And I would say that I refused his exercise. But when I got into this zero business, I thought, Well, what if there’s nothing?
SM Saito is more than just an exercise in character; it’s a complex exercise in literary form. You begin by introducing a rather immature character. And you take him through a progression of cases. And then, you throw out the crime-gets-committed crime-gets-solved form, and in one story show the intimate inner processes of the criminal, and in the next story we come back, not to see the guy solve it, but to see a guy describe to the guy who solved it, how he solved it. You were reinventing the form!
JVW I think all fiction writers do that. I wrote this book, Murder by Remote Control, which is really an exercise in surrealism. The detective turns out to be a holograph, a robot, programmed with a kind of efficient nihilism. All he has to do is find and eliminate the perpetrator, and he does, quite pleasantly.
SM What gave you that idea?
JVW Oh, it was just using things that can happen and putting them together in strange combinations. All the elements of that book, all the houses, all the people, come from my neighborhood.
SM Saito is more successful, in my mind, as an integral work. Remote Control is a curiosity, a fascination.
JVW We could be climbing a mountain, and I could say, “Look at the light!” And you look at it and nothing happens to you because it’s not your kind of light. Or take the music of Miles Davis, which has been a loyal, steady influence all through my existence. Everytime he changed style, I had big problems. I even returned records to stores because I got so upset with them. And then I’d buy them again, I’d listen to them again. Because there’s something in them that fascinated me, his approach to the big mystery of life.
SM I feel Miles was a very troubled and tormented character despite his unbelievable artistic output.
JVW Well, he’d have to be! Because this is big shit, you know. You’re dealing with divinity, with the deepest and most mysterious riddles that face us. And of course you go nuts. You start injecting heroin and drinking. He was a pimp, he admits to all sorts of crimes. And you read his book, Miles, which was a typed-out interview, every fourth word is “Motherfucker.” He never read a book in his life. He couldn’t. He said so himself, he could only read magazines. And I can’t play the trumpet.
SM Did you ever meet him?
JVW I wouldn’t want to meet him. On the social level most people really don’t interest me. I wouldn’t want to meet myself on that level. Who cares how I behave at a party?
SM This all presumes an identity independent of the you that someone else creates.
JVW Yeah, but it’s all on the level of personalities.
SM You wouldn’t want to meet the “you” that I make of you. You want to be the you that you are.
JVW Well, I’d rather not be at all.
SM You’d rather not be a you?
JVW Yeah. And I don’t think I am. I think it’s just an illusion, like a cloud in the sky. People think there’s such a thing as me, and I think there’s such a thing as people. I’d much rather meet a man through his art, or through his craft, or through the way the bus driver drives his bus, than have hours of conversation with him on a social level.
SM I looked at the shelf of your published works and I had read many of them. I felt I knew you pretty well. Meeting you the person doesn’t really change how I regard your work, nor does it devalue the out-put.
JVW I’ll tell you a funny story: In Germany there’s a female movie star who I thought was just divine, beautiful. I really wanted to sleep with her. I thought, Hey, I’ve got to be careful here. Because every time I have phrased a request with such intensity it happened. And also, every pleasure comes wrapped in pain and disappointment. So do I really want to put this request out in the open? And I thought, Why not? Because it couldn’t possibly ever happen. (pause) Years later I went to Germany. And I’d kept that dream alive, it was my erotic fantasy. I would really annoy my wife talking about this woman—I saw all her movies. In Germany I had a new publisher, and the editor-in-chief asked me, “What would you really like to do in Germany?” I said, “I’d like to sleep with this actress.” And he said, “Ah. You really would? It so happens she wrote a little book, which wasn’t a very good book, but we published it anyway just to please her. So she owes us one, and she is between lovers right now. And she is in town. And she does sleep around a little bit, so we’ll arrange that you have lunch with her. Now, at lunchtime don’t flirt, don’t play footsie under the table, be normal, quiet, polite. And then that night, you can do it.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah yeah!” I went back to the hotel where my wife was, and I woke up a few hours later, and thought, I’m out of my mind. What am I trying to do here? It will upset my life; it won’t do anything for me, because she could never be what I think she is, and it’ll do nothing for her. So the next morning I raced up to the publisher’s office, and I said, “Forget it, I don’t want to do it.” They said, “Oh, you’re just in time, we were about to reach for the phone.” (laughter) So there you go. I would have met her on a personal level, and I probably would have been disappointed.
I have these fantasies of going to see God and telling him what I think of him. (laughter) It would be like The Wizard of Oz with this funny little fucked-up guy behind his curtain saying, “Yes, yes, what can I do for you?” and being all nervous. And who is he? He’s just another projection.
SM In your Amsterdam Detectives series we move through the careers of the cop characters until the 11th book when, suddenly, the books stopped abruptly. And I couldn’t get another book by you for…eight years?
JVW Yeh. I’ve said before, I don’t write for money but when I started the Dutch Cop series there was financial motivation. I had to change careers.
SM You were a cop.
JVW Not only a cop, I part-owned a textile company that was doing very well. I was 40. I needed to get away from it. I wanted to do something that wouldn’t be bound to Holland. Live wherever I wanted to. So this seemed like a good idea. The first few books are really formula writing, and there are certain subplots, and the publisher kept saying, “More!” So I wrote 11. And then I couldn’t write them anymore, because the formula became too tight. And cops have to be within the moral superego of the country. They had to apply Dutch morals. And I couldn’t let that continue. I had to think of a new method of getting them out of there.
Eight years later I found it in a newspaper article. Two detectives of the Amsterdam police disappeared and were never seen again. One guy was gay and was having an unhappy relationship, and the other had just gotten a divorce and there were no kids. They were pursuing a missing Japanese businessman. And they found him in a brothel getting bonked out of his mind. In the brothel-bar they heard about a building further down the street where black guys from Surinam had been dealing drugs, and these dealer’s Ferraris, were still outside in the street full of seagull shit. A Ferrari, it’s a $300,000 car. They’re so expensive you can’t steal them, because there are so few of them. So the cops thought, what happened? They got a warrant and discovered that those guys had been called back to Surinam and killed. And in the house, as the detectives were looking around, they found a fake wall, behind which was two million dollars in cash. They took it back to the police station, and there it vanished. Then the higher regions of the Dutch police suddenly were buying Mercedes and going to Fiji on the weekends with their secretaries. So these two cops thought, Jesus, here we are doing a good job, we find the money, hand it in and look what happens. So they became a little cynical. They went back to the house, and after that they disappeared. What must have happened is they found the real money—another five million dollars. And thought, what the hell.
SM And this is the answer you got?
JVW Yeah. After eight years of waiting to find the new formula. I made my detectives free, and then they could leave.
SM Well, you took them about as far as they could go, detective de Gier from being the young man about town and sent him…
JVW To Papua New Guinea.
SM To live with a shaman and experiment with marijuana and alcohol.
JVW Which he always wanted to do. I did put that in earlier books; there’s always this Papua New Guinea
symbol that he dreams about, because it’s so faraway. And his grumpy partner Grijpstra finally dumps his overweight wife and moves in with the ex-prostitute, and sets up a detective agency. But now he can refuse cases.
SM And then there’s the young guy Cardozo, who’s pretty smart.
JVW He stays in the police, so they still have a link to the police. They can use the police, when they wantto.
SM And then the Commissaris, his legs are still troubling him; he’s got the understanding wife and the turtle in the garden…
JVW And he retires. So now I had them exactly where I wanted them.
SM So you wrote just Another Corpse At Twilight, published last year, set in Maine. Grijpstra has come over to solve the mystery of de Gier’s girlfriend’s murder.
JVW The people who made the movie The Last Emperor wanted to do a film with a Judge Dee mystery in it. I went to Rome, found a story, wrote the script, and then the producer died in a car accident. The whole project fell through but I got paid for the script, to my surprise. So I reused the plot in Maine.
SM The guys who are pulling the strings—Bilda Farnsworth and the Commissaris—never meet until the last chapter of that book, when all the loose ends are tied up.
JVW And they’re very friendly.
SM You borrowed as well from the Japanese samurai movies. It begins with a conspiracy, and then there’s the conflict, the resolution, and they all sit around the banquet table, making their speeches and telling you what happened.
JVW You need the banquet to have the chief characters, evil and good, sum it up in this book. The chiefs just meet on an elevated level, and turn out to be puppet masters. They’ve done the whole thing for their own enjoyment, and it didn’t matter—it’s all illusionary.
SM Also, everybody gets taken care of. Hairy Harry, the corrupt sheriff expires.
JVW Hairy Harry would have been okay if he hadn’t shot Croaky, the Raven. My neighbor here actually owned Croaky, he was a wonderful bird and got shot by some redneck asshole. The redneck had a terrible accident and broke his neck, I think it was murder. But everybody was very pleased, and nobody looked into it too closely. You can’t shoot Croaky the pet raven—you can’t. That animal was such a symbol of divinity and jolliness.
SM And Mr. Bear, who was prowling around the unspoiled island. Harry also tried to shoot Mr. Bear.
JVW You can’t do that, either. You can kill 200,000 Iraqis and get away with it, get a medal—but you can’t shoot somebody’s pet.
SM After having written the “next” novel, why come back to a prequel as the latest book, The Hollow-Eyed Angel?
JVW Well, I always wanted to write a book set partly in Central Park. I come to New York several times a year and I invariably hang out there, look at all the people. It was an old story that was still in my head and I had to bring it out or it would’ve murdered me. You saw that movie Alien? When this monstrosity breaks out right through his chest? That’s exactly the way I feel about my books. I can feel them moving around in there. You can’t hold them, you have to go through all the pain of making them, have their birth.
SM When you write a book, do you have an outline?
JVW Oh, yeah.
SM Character profiles?
JVW Yeah, but it never comes out that way.
SM Do you write in a strict linear manner?
JVW No. With the last few books I had to rewrite the whole thing several times, and I never had to do that in the early ones. The exercises are getting more complicated.
SM Owing to?
JVW Maybe to new insights I’ve had since then. I find I’m writing on a new level, trying to put in old thoughts, and they don’t fit. They seem to fit the first time you write them and when you read it, it doesn’t fit anymore. So you have to rewrite.
SM The Hollow-Eyed Angel contains a succession of philosophical dialogues, almost like koans. Little episodic exchanges where one is forced to reconsider issues of nothingness and mortality.
JVW I put them in in such a way that I’m not exhausting the reader. The reader keeps saying, “So what happens? Okay, so he’s having these interesting thoughts in the subway, but how about solving the crime? Even if nobody goes to court or jail, what the fuck happened?” You have to hold to the main storyline, and then you can tuck in all these interesting thoughts. That’s why I rewrote this book so many times, because there were whole philosophical essays that had to be expressed in one line.
SM Do you write everyday?
JVW No no no, there are days that I do nothing at all and there are days I work 10, 12 hours. The funniest writer I think is Dumas Pére. He had 20 writers that he paid! It was a factory. And he would walk from one to the other and check their writing. These people were writing in longhand, and he’d say, “Yeah, you’re doing good, but change this a little,” and go to the next guy.
SM Can I ask you about some other writers, like Agatha Christie?
JVW Agatha Christie’s husband left her and she wandered around the countryside for a few weeks and couldn’t remember what she did. I find that far more interesting than any of the books she ever wrote.
SM John D. MacDonald, Travis McGee. Ever read those?
JVW I thought they were great, because they helped me understand Florida and the Keys. I’ve been going there for years, and I wrote a series of short stories set in the Keys and they’re out in an anthology.
SM Who’s the detective?
JVW He’s a Dutch guy who had a real estate business in Boston, and he retires. He looks like God, he looks like the illustrations in children’s Bibles. So people naturally come to him with problems, and he feels he should solve them, but he’s completely amoral and doesn’t care about good being rewarded and evil being squashed. His sidekick is a much better character than he is, a deputy sheriff, a black guy, who I met. He was doing very well, he had a beautiful white wife, and then his wife became a floozy who started consorting with drug dealers and flying all over the place. And she burned his house down. He rebuilt the place from flotsam that he found in the Gulf of Mexico. He continues working, is very neat, very impressive in his uniform, but he doesn’t care about anything anymore and, strangely or logically enough, his new-found amorality makes him more human.
SM Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner.
JVW I didn’t like either of them. I never did. I tried to, you know, but I really couldn’t follow it. Three o’clock in the goddamn morning I’m asleep, in a meditation week and Ellery Queen called me. I was exhausted, very pissed off. And he says, “This is Ellery Queen, do you have a pencil? I read your story, and I’m going to print it. But you have to change the ending. Because in your story, the priest did it, and Ellery Queen magazine is sold to priests and old ladies. So you have to change it.” And I said, “Well, I don’t have a pencil, I’m not going to change it, it’s three o’clock in the morning, and goodbye.”
SM What about Rex Stout?
JVW Ah yeah, now that’s nice. The fat guy, Nero Wolfe. In one of his books he loses three hundred pounds in order to escape from his enemies. I thought that was a wonderful gambit. To make a man lose three hundred pounds in a few pages.
SM The incredibly successful Dick Francis.
JVW I can’t, I can’t. That whole horsey scene doesn’t…I know many fans just swear by him… It’s like this Tony Hillerman. Reminds me of Rembrandt. Rembrandt in Holland is the biggest painter. I could never see it. I’m not impressed by Rembrandt and I’m not impressed by Tony Hillerman. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.
SM I’ll give you another one: Sue Grafton, Kinsey Millhone. Those are enormously successful.
JVW Yeah, but so are hamburgers, like 27 billion sold. I haven’t read her, maybe she’s excellent. I used to think the most horrible thing in America was trailers. Then the other day I drove into a field where there were weeds three feet high, and in the middle was a pink trailer. It must have been the first trailer ever built. And it was rusted out and inside was this horribly fat woman with no teeth, eating generic potato chips out of a black and white bag, and I loved it. I loved the trailer; I loved everything. Why should one thing be better than another? What’s the value of personal taste? But I still don’t like Tony Hillerman or Rembrandt.
SM Why can’t you simply take it for what it is?
JVW When you went to school you were dragged to the museum and you had to imbibe it. They dragged me to Hieronymus Bosch paintings and I thought, “Yeah! This is it! This is what I was looking for!” And then they take you to the Nightwatch and you see a lot of boring people. (pause) It will all be forgotten in the end. Likables and unlikables. Think of the empty space where the earth used to be, indistinguishable from all the other empty space. Once there was a planet full of beings, millions of years of dinosaurs and the Big Bang, then come the homo sapiens, and maybe another Big Bang, and one day the sun implodes and that’s it. There’ll be no record, nothing.
In Japan, one of my fellow students had been a naval officer with Intelligence in the U.S. military. And we were exhausted after meditation week and we were talking about the most beautiful things we’d ever seen and he said that when he got on the beach at Okinawa there were thousands of American and Japanese corpses, and because of the heat they had exploded. And their intestines had swollen up like balloons and the setting sun was shining through them. He said it was the most beautiful thing he ever saw in his life.
And I thought of the German tanks coming into Holland through the fog, with these long phallic guns on them and the rumble of the engines. I was tremendously impressed. I knew it was a lethal thing. Or going into a butcher shop and seeing a bunch of rats all cut up, because it was the only meat we had at the end of the war. All these wonderful little rats, symmetrical rows of them. Laid out very nicely. And they tasted good too. I could only buy one because they were one to a person. And I said, “There are 14 people at home.” They said, “One to a customer.” I got home: “Look what I got, a rat. Yaaaay!” (laughter)
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee