Today's guest blog is by David Hewson. David Hewson is the author of The Costa Series, The Killing Books I-III, and the Pieter Vos series.
Readers always wonder where stories come from. So do authors too. The truth is… sometimes yesterday. Sometimes a year before. Sometimes nowhere. And on occasion a very long time ago indeed, which is the case with the second Pieter Vos book set in Amsterdam, The Wrong Girl.
When I set out on a new book I always have a specific aspiration for it. Trying to write ‘a good story’ isn’t enough. Every tale needs a challenge and a goal of its own. The first Vos book, The House of Dolls, was a murder mystery set around Vos himself, a man who thought his world had vanished only to discover he was wrong. He did have some meaning and purpose in life; unfortunately they lay in police work, the very thing that almost destroyed him in the first place.
For The Wrong Girl I decided to tell a broader story but one that had, at its heart, someone at the very bottom of the social ladder. A woman dispossessed, terribly wronged, desperate for help… and pretty much unable to find it except from Vos and his colleagues.
It took me a while to work out where this came from and then I realised: it was back in the Eighties when I was a reporter on The Times. There’d been one of those terrible cases of child neglect: an impoverished single mother had failed to look after her son who’d died in dreadful circumstances. She was jailed, of course, and plastered across the newspapers with all the predictable coverage you’d expect, especially from the tabloids.
About eighteen months later an official report on the background to the case slipped out. I was asked to read it and write a news report. It didn’t make much because the investigation revealed the truth behind the tragedy: the mother had been ill, neglected, badly in need of support she never got. But no one was much interested hearing that. The myth of the mother from hell was much more palatable than the grim truth that this was a tragedy with a much broader cause, some of which lay in the very people who’d castigated the mother in the first place.
I realised then that, though we live in a society that thinks of itself as caring, that degree of compassion depends very on circumstance. If the pretty white, middle class child of pretty, professional white middle class parents goes missing it makes the front pages, full of sympathy. If the ordinary-looking kid of a black single mother does the same the first thing we’re likely to do is look at the parent and ask: how could you allow this to happen? Context determines everything.
And so it does in The Wrong Girl. At the beginning we’re in Amsterdam in November. It’sone of the happiest family days of the year, the Sunday when Sinterklaas — Saint Nicholas — arrives in the city. He’s greeted by something like four hundred thousand people as he turns up on grand barge with six hundred or so ‘elf’ followers, then climbs onto a grand white horse for a parade through the squares and along the canals.
Finally, from the balcony of the municipal theatre in Leidseplein, he addresses the children of the Netherlands, a speech that’s carried live throughout the land on TV. It’s a wonderful occasion I can’t recommend enough, one of the most family-friendly city festivals in Europe (this year on November 15).
Doing what I do I make it less wonderful, of course. In the book an attempt is made to kidnap the daughter of an old and respected city family during the final ceremony in Leidseplein. It fails and a similar-looking child is snatched in her place. She’s the daughter of an illegal Georgian sex worker, an intelligent and loving mother who’s working the Red Light District to put food on the table.
Pieter Vos and his fellow detectives are determined to find the child, who appears to have been snatched to gain the release of an Islamist preacher in custody. But as the case details begin to muddy it becomes apparent that there are others who feel the life of a foreign girl, the daughter of a prostitute, isn’t as important as the bigger political and security issues at stake.
This isn’t a story about the sex trade or terrorism, though both come into it. It’s the tale of Hanna Bublik and her daughter Natalya, the mother and child who find themselves on the verge of being abandoned to their fate. However much Vos and his colleagues try to support them, will they accept that kind of compromised help? What would a lone mother to in a foreign, hostile city if she thought the people who were supposed to protect her weren’t really on their side?
It’s a grey area and this is fiction, so it’s more interested in throwing up hard questions than trying to offer easy answers. The book also reflects my firm belief that a second title in a series has to fight any temptation to go soft on its regular characters. This is a tough and at time quite shocking story. As usual I did as much research as I felt necessary. That threw up some pretty appalling details of ways in which the manipulators of the sex trade in Amsterdam control their women. One, which I use in the book, may well turn out to be one of those true stories that some readers refuse to believe.
Just as, thirty years ago, we didn’t want to believe that report into the sad death of a little boy at the hands of a sick mother.
Hanna isn’t sick. She’s smart, she’s angry and she’s determined she’ll get her daughter back. With or without Vos’s help.
The Wrong Girl by David Hewson is published 7th May by Macmillan, price £12.99 in hardback
The Wrong Girl
With Christmas around the corner, the friendly saint Sinterklaas is set to mark his arrival in Amsterdam with his ‘Black Pete’ helpers, leading a parade televised live throughout the country. Though the city is bursting at the seams with families determined to witness the saint on his golden barge on the Amstel River, Brigadier Pieter Vos and his assistant Laura Bakker are not expecting much trouble. And then the first grenade is thrown. Excitement turns to fear as explosions shake the city, and in the chaos, an eight year old girl wearing a pink jacket is kidnapped. But the abducted child isn’t the daughter of Amsterdam aristocrat Henk Kuyper as the terrorists intended. She is the daughter of an illegal Georgian prostitute trapped in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. As the perpetrators’ demands become clear, the case sparks a turf war between security forces and the police, both clashing over the ensuing investigation. Vos and Bakker realise that no one can be trusted, as they begin to unravel a sinister operation that reaches higher than they could have ever imagined. And at its heart is the life of an eight year old girl, snatched from a loving mother who will do anything to get her back…
David Hewson is a former journalist who has worked at The Times, The Independent and The Sunday Times. He is the author of nearly twenty crime thrillers set in various European cities, including a highly commended literary interpretation of acclaimed Danish TV drama The Killing and the Nic Costa series set in Rome. His ability to capture the sense of place and atmosphere of the cities in his novels comes from spending considerable research time there. David was inspired to write his new detective crime series starring Pieter Vos (The House of Dolls and its sequel The Wrong Girl) after exploring the city of Amsterdam whilst visiting for a book festival and accidentally stumbling into the Jordaan: ‘once a rough working class district of the city, very local, very much a tight community…It had lots of visual appeal. Houseboats on the Prinsengracht canal. Bikes everywhere. And those odd statues and slogans which made me curious to discover where they came from.’
In 2011, he and A.J. Hartley wrote an audiobook adaptation of Macbeth, which was read by Alan Cumming and nominated for Audiobook of the Year. In 2014, they followed it up with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: A Novel, which was read by Richard Armitage and won Audiobook of the Year.