Two Fascinating Books for Boekenweek 2020: Mr. Miller by Charles den Tex and The Dutch Maiden by Marente de Moor

Mr. Miller is a conspiracy thriller that reads like a film unfolding on an IMAX screen. It centers around a communications consultant for a giant corporation, H C & P, named Michael Bellicher. As the novel opens, he and his parents are at the airport waiting for his brother’s arrival. They have not seen him for five years, and when Michael does see him, he is so shocked he hyperventilates…and then he goes on a three day drinking binge during which the appointments he has made, and the clients themselves, are ignored.

When he finally returns to work, he knows that his job is in serious jeopardy, and so he hides in the canteen in case his entry is denied the next morning. But, coming out of the kitchen in the darkness of night, he stumbles across the body of a woman. Then, he overhears two men in the building, one of whom he later recognizes upon hearing his voice.

Why has this woman been murdered? Why is there only a record of Michael being in the building at night, perfectly framing him for her death? And what, exactly, is technology capable of in the wrong hands? For when he opens his computer, with a certain web address he has found in the dead woman’s apartment, he finds the following text, behind which is a large photo of the earth as seen from space:

You have reached the home of Mr. Miller.

Welcome?

I did not mistype the question mark. It seems a dubious thing indeed, to be welcomed by Mr. Miller, for who of us would like our every move monitored, or worse, manipulated?

We follow Michael Bellicher’s attempts to escape those who wish to catch him, while at the same time gathering an understanding of what Mr. Miller is all about, with growing apprehension. Sandwiched in between the action is the very real, and sensitive, issue of Michael’s brother.

While I found the action in this novel a bit overdone, the concept of technology being used as a “strictly controlled information war” is truly terrifying.

About the author: Charles den Tex is the Netherlands’ leading thriller writer. His work has been translated into several languages. He is a three-time winner of the Dutch annual prize for the best thriller. His novel CEL (Cell) was longlisted for the prestigious Libris Literature Prize. Mr. Miller and CEL were made into a ten-part mini-series for Dutch television and have been sold to Netflix. His work is often compared to John Grisham, Michael Crichton, and Michael Ridpath.

About the translator: Nancy Forest-Flier is a New Jersey-born translatoe who moved to Europe in 1982 and has worked in the Netherlands since 1988. Her literary translations include The King by Kader Abdolah, Dissident for Life

All young souls idealize the future, but it takes a girl to idealIze the present along with it. (p. 40)

The Dutch Maiden mesmerized me from the very beginning. It is my favorite kind of novel, one which examines relationships through expertly drawn characters. In some places I was reminded of Rebecca, or Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights, for in The Dutch Maiden we also find a romantic story within an unnerving setting.

Janna is an eighteen year old girl, sent by her father to his friend, Egon von Botticher. She comes to study with this fencing master at his country estate named Raeren, and there, she learns more than she has come to know.

Egon von Botticher is a hard task-master. His body has been deformed by what he endured in World War I, when his horse abandoned him as he lay wounded. Janna’s father, working for the Dutch Red Cross, found Egon, determined to help him heal. But, it is clear that even if he healed, at least partially, he is not now fully restored to his former self either physically or emotionally.

Janna cannot help but fall in love with her maître; he is skilled, he is gruff, he is forceful, all of which entrances her even more than the two male students who have come to study with von Botticher as well.

Yet, this story is far more than a romance. Far more than the skills required to excel at fencing. Even more than the relationship between two men: one Dutch, and one German. It is also an exploration of Germany after the end of World War I, and on the cusp of World War II. Behold the cover: it pictures an actual fencing champion, Helene Mayer.

The woman on the cover is Helene Mayer, who also features in the book as the sportswoman who inspires the protagonist to start fencing. At at seventeen, Mayer won the gold medal for fencing at the 1928 Olympics, and quickly became a national hero. In 935, due to her father being Jewish, she was stripped of her German citizenship and forced to resettle in the USA. Despite this, she returned to represent Germany at the 1936 games in Berlin where she won silver, and curiously, gave the Nazi salute on stage.

About the author: Marente de Moor worked as a correspondent in Saint Petersburg for a number of years and wrote a book based on her experiences, Petersburg’s Vertellingen (‘Petersburg Stories’) which was published in 1999. She made a successful debut as a novelist in 2007 with De Overtreder (‘The Transgressor’). For her second novel, The Dutch Maiden, she was awarded the prestigious AKO LIterature Prize along with the European Union Prize for Literature. The novel has so far sold over 70,000 copies in the Netherlands and has been translated into ten languages.

About the translator: David Doherty studied English and literary linguistics in Glasgow before moving to Amsterdam, where he has been working as a translator since 1996. His translations include novels by critically acclaimed Dutch-language authors such as Monte Carlo by Peter Terrin and The Dyslexic Hearts Club by Hanneke Hendrix. He has also translated the work of leading Dutch sports writers Hugo Borst and Wilfried de Jong. David was recently commended by the jury of the Vondel Translation Prize for his translations of The Dutch Maiden and Jaap Robben’s You Have Me To Love.

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