If you’re not familiar with Pieter Aspe, you’re not alone. He’s Belgian, lives in Bruges and writes in Flemish. Some of his novels, including “The Square of Revenge,” feature Pieter Van In, a divorced 40ish deputy police commissioner who also is a sharp investigator. To judge by the cover reviews, Aspe knows his craft. Le Figero called him “The Flemish Georges Simenon,” and Het Laatste Newuws of Belgium noted that no other Belgian author has sold 10 million books in a decade.
“The Square of Revenge” was the first of Aspe’s novels to be translated into English. And either the translation is stilted or the author is overrated. The story itself has plenty going for it. It takes place in Bruges, a historic and picturesque city that would make a splendid backdrop for almost any story. Van In is called upon by the police commissioner, a stuffy fellow, to look into a bizarre burglary in a jewelry story owned by the son of Ludovic DeGroot, a conservative power broker.
What’s strange about the burglary is that nothing of value was taken. Rather, the store’s stock of gold jewelry was destroyed in acid. What was strange about the commissioner’s directive to Van In was that the investigation was to be quashed: no publicity whatsoever.
Also called to the burglary is Hannalore Martens, a bright, and attractive, young deputy prosecutor. Both she and Van In, who had never met, smell a rat, and end up working together. (What’s a novel without at least the semblance of a love interest for the protagonist?)
One of their few clues is a curious square piece of cloth with some sort or code on it. Van In and Martens pursue leads strong and weak as discretely as possible when DeGroot’s grandson, a teenager, is kidnapped. That’s when DeGroot, an old man who’s accustomed to having his way, decides he wants Van In to find his son, no matter the publicity.
The kidnapper’s ransom is nontraditional. What’s demanded is that the teenager’s father - DeGroot’s son - set fire to 20 paintings, many of them priceless - in a public square at a set hour on a set date or the teen would be killed. That, Van In and Martens, conclude, means that the crimes were committed not for personal gain but for revenge. All they have to do was figure out which of DeGroot’s numerous enemies would resort to such acts.
Van In and Martens end up chasing around Belgium to investigate reports that DeGroot carried on an incestuous relationship with at least one of his daughters. That could explain his dread of publicity and it would help explain why his daughters were as maladjusted as they seem to be.
There’s a lot going on in “The Square of Revenge,” and the author does a creditable job of tying everything together. One senses there’s fair amount of humor sprinkled through the story, but some of it’s lost in translation. Despite that modest hurdle, “The Square of Revenge” is a pleasant escape to Bruges.
Walt Braun is the editorial page editor at the Manhattan Mercury.