Review: Daniel Pembrey – The Harbour Master

23636123Regular readers of this blog will know my view on the length of crime novels. I’ve been reading the genre since I was a child and there were days when I could easily devour two or three books in an afternoon. I appreciate that I don’t have that time now but the length of books has increased to ridiculous levels. One trend that has emerged partly, I suspect in response to this, is the rise of the novella form. These books seem particularly popular as downloads where the length of books is far more fluid. Over the Christmas period I read a trilogy by Daniel Pembrey. The Harbour Master is an example of how well you can tell a story in a shorter form without compromising on character or plot.

Henk van der Pol is an Amsterdam policeman thinking about retirement. In the first story, a woman’s body is fished out of the harbour. Her death may be the responsibility of a vicious Hungarian pimp who is feared throughout the city. In book 2, van der Pol is persuaded to accompany a Ghanaian diplomat on his visit to Brussels. But the appearance of a valuable diamond, the theft of a Norwegian painting and the beating of an escort girl in a hotel put him at odds with his boss in the police department. In the final story, a Dutch politician in Belgium is kidnapped putting van der Pol’s career and life in danger.

The sign of a good book is that I immediately want to visit the place where the narrative is located. Although the principal setting is Amsterdam we are also treated to descriptions of Brussels, Antwerp and Rotterdam. There’s some interesting information on the history of these cities but also their differing roles within modern Europe. You’d think it quite difficult to make political Europe interesting in a crime story. But the bureaucratic machinations were handled with a light touch and the incidental descriptions about the various cities were fascinating.

Van der Pol is clearly a maverick style policeman but this never stretches the limits of plausibility. In particular, his clashes with his superior, Joost, have the ring of truth of anyone who has come up against their boss. Assembling the three novellas into a collected edition is a good idea as the stories run on from each other and, by the conclusion, there’s a sense of a wider narrative being completed. There’s also, I think, another van der Pol story coming in 2015 so that’s something to look forward to.

The style of writing was so enjoyable, it prompted me to download another story by the author, Simon Sixsmith, A Ghost Story. For those who like something with a supernatural twist, this really is an excellent read too.

14 thoughts on “Review: Daniel Pembrey – The Harbour Master

  1. I SO agree with you Sarah on length, and I have exactly the same background in devouring a couple of paperbacks in those long ago times of free days! This one does sound good, and I always like an Amsterdam setting.


  2. Totally in agreement on the length issue. I’ve got some books I know I will enjoy that I just don’t have the energy to even pick up they are so enormous.

    This sounds good though – have not been virtually to Amsterdam in ages (and even longer since I visited non-virtually). Thanks for the tip.


  3. Margot Kinberg

    Sarah – I couldn’t agree more on the book length issue. You really can tell a story very well without taking 500 pages to do so. Having been to Amsterdam, I’m already interested in the setting, and the story sounds great too. As always, a fine review.


  4. I love the sound of the setting of this one as I love Amsterdam and indeed the rest of Holland. I’m with you on the length of books too, I read a crime novel from 1964 the other day and it was a small paperback with just 125 pages but told the story in a succinct way and I got just as much from it as some of the books with three times that number.


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