13 May 2015

The Wrong Girl - David Hewson

The Wrong GirlWe’re reviewing today. Bring your passport and a change of pants. David Hewson’s The Wrong Girl is the second in his series of novels to feature his Dutch cops Vos and Bakker.

The blurb loves a bit of argy-bargy:

Sinterklaas, a beaming, friendly saint with a white beard, was set to mark his arrival in Amsterdam with a parade so celebrated it would be watched live on television throughout the Netherlands. Today the crowds would run into three hundred thousand or more, and the police presence would top four figures. The city centre was closed to all traffic as a golden barge bore Sinterklaas down the Amstel river, surrounded by a throng of private boats full of families trying to get close.

Amsterdam is bursting at the seams with children trying to get a glimpse of their hero and families enjoying the occasion. The police are out in force, struggling to manage the crowds on one of the busiest days of the year.

Brigadier Pieter Vos is on duty with his young assistant, Laura Bakker, when the first grenade hits. As Sinterklaas prepares to address the crowds, a terrorist incident grips the heart of the city. In the chaos a young girl wearing a pink jacket is kidnapped.

But the abducted child isn’t the daughter of an Amsterdam aristocrat as the terrorists first thought. She’s the daughter of an impoverished Georgian prostitute, friendless and trapped in the web of vice that is Amsterdam’s Red Light District. As the security forces and the police clash over the ensuing investigation, the perpetrator’s horrifying demands become clear. Vos, trapped in a turf war with state intelligence, tries to unravel a conspiracy that reaches from the brothels of the city to the hierarchy of the security services.

And at its heart lies an eight-year-old girl, snatched from a loving mother and then ferried from one criminal lair to the next. Her life in the balance as Vos and Laura Bakker struggle to uncover the shocking truth behind her abduction. What is the life of one immigrant child worth in the greater political game emerging around them?

So David Hewson has got form for this kind of European thriller. He’s the king of Eurocrime, the guy who wrote the Nic Costa thrillers, set in Italy, and three adaptations of The Killing TV series. If you’re going on a coach trip across the continent, he’s the guy you want behind the wheel. He never takes any unnecessary detours, the story slips into automatic and it carries you towards the climax with barely a bump in the road.

Amsterdam is at once familiar and strange in The Wrong Girl. Hewson doesn’t overload the story with research, but drops the odd cultural detail into his precinct. The little girl is abducted at Amsterdam’s annual Sinterklaas celebration, with its traditional—and increasingly controversial—parade of blacked-up helpers, the Black Petes.

The political backstory in The Wrong Girl never becomes a drag on the forward momentum. The dialogue is crisp and excellent, and the characters are sharply drawn. Pieter Vos, who was introduced in The House Of Dolls, is a stoic and melancholy protag, and his team of Dutch coppers are admirably human in their failings.

But it’s the guest cast who compel. Hewson gives them depth an pathos. The wrong girl proves to be a handful for her captors, and her stricken—and determined—mother Hanna Bublik gives the pages an unpredictable energy whenever she appears. Hewson imbues another of his characters, Henk Kuyper – a cold and manipulative fellow – a sorrowful dignity. Minor players – such as the vile Thompson Twins – get their moment to shine.

If I’ve got a criticism, it’s that everything in The Wrong Girl unfolds with the same steady rhythm, whether it’s Vos smoking a cigarette on his canal boat or a police raid on a house, a scene that comes and goes with the blink of an eye. I’d like to have seen Hewson mix it up a bit. Take the narrative out of cruise. Speed it up, slow it down, tensely build forthcoming events, but this brisk rhythm only really changes at the exciting climax when he provides a final sting in the tail to send the reader on their way.

But you’re in safe hands here. The Wrong Girl is an engrossing and intelligent thriller, and something of a page-turner.

Thanks to Macmillan for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that David Hewson will be here later in the week to give us the intel on Vos, Bakker and the dark heart of Europe.