Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
When a book is translated it’s difficult for the reviewer to assign responsibility for negative features and, on the occasions we encounter a good one, does its merit lie in the original text or an artful and literate translation – or both? No problem with House of Dolls however; set in Amsterdam, near to home but as foreign as they come, it’s by an English author, based in London, ex-Sunday Times journalist turned crime novelist and originator of television’s The Killing.
This is a police procedural although only in part, the plot revolving round three fathers deprived of their daughters: much loved, missing, perhaps still alive. They are a policeman, a politician and a gangster, the latter a godfather figure but Dutch and past his prime. When we meet him he’s about to be released from jail, having been betrayed and framed. Treachery is the theme here. The cop is an inspector in limbo since his daughter disappeared three years ago; the politician is the one whose wild girl doesn’t come home on a day when he’s about to launch his radical campaign to clean up the city’s red light district.
Links between the stricken families are political, social, criminal, while in the murky background is the House of Dolls, a brothel housing little girls for a specialist market. Over-spicing an exotic stew is the gang warfare between the old home-grown hood on his way out and the upstart young immigrant from South America. Attending the main players are their cohorts, colleagues and hangers-on: civil servants, hit men, police in shades of grey, not to mention the partners, current and former and, of course, the girls. Predictably there are some nasty deaths as parties and individuals go about achieving their conflicting goals.
The chapters are short, the writing terse, keeping the reader on his toes, subjecting him to a gamut of empathy (an exception being the reptilian aspirant mayor, any saving grace subsumed by her lust for power). The gangsters are ruthless and brutal but human, one or two coming out well in contrast with the politicians. On the side of the angels is the trainee detective who assists the inspector; morphing from clumsy farm girl to able pupil, innate intelligence shines through her sometimes tactless efforts to bludgeon truth from hostile informants. The inspector himself, climbing painfully out of his private hell, is credible if delightfully eccentric, living in a decrepit houseboat, chasing clues along the canals on a bike with his fox terrier in a basket on the handlebars.
An exciting and interesting book, inclusively researched, enticing the reader to go out and find others by Hewson set in different European cities.