Guest Blog: Booked for Murder

Note: this is the second installment in a semi-regular series of guest posts, which kicked-off last month with an article on the Japanese detective story, hosted on this blog spot – and this time I will temporarily hand my blog over to M.P.O. Books who transcribed one of his reviews into English. Books is a struggling author of thriller-cum-detective stories, inspired by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Appie Baantjer, Ellis Peters and Henning Mankell, who debuted in 2004 with Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia) and deserving of a more appreciative reading audience. So, if you're an American publisher questing for a new Eurocrime writer, don't look any further than M.P.O. Books!

The Black-Box Murder by Maarten Maartens  

The Black-Box Murder is probably the first detective story for adults written by a Dutchman. The novel appeared only two years after Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to his sleuth Sherlock Holmes. The writer was Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwarz, better known under his pseudonym Maarten Maartens (1858-1915). Strikingly enough he wrote The Black-Box Murder in English, and as far as I know it never appeared in the Dutch language. Though his through-and-through Dutch sounding pseudonym and his real name suggest something else, this writer of literary work spent a part of his youth in England. This is evident in The Black-Box Murder. This detective story takes place partly in England, partly in France.

The Black-Box Murder was released in 1889 anonymously. This wasn't due to Maarten Maartens, as a literary writer, not wanting to be associated with a detective novel. It suited the contents of the book better. Because The Black-Box Murder is written from the perspective of Spence, the "I" person in the story, who considers his book a report of his murder investigation. By hiding his own identity, the writer suggests that we are dealing with a story that truly happened. Hence the reference on the title page, that the story was written by the man who discovered the murderer. Spence is a private detective who happens to witness the discovery of a body in a box two British ladies are travelling with. With the few clues the box is offering him, he starts his investigation, until he has unmasked the murderer.

The story is varied and contains twists which keep the reader captivated effortlessly. It reminds a bit of the atmosphere of the first novels about the master sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Spence isn't a very smart detective though. Anyone paying attention will soon suspect that the perpetrator Spence is tracing, isn't the right one. The question who did commit the murder, is relevant far beyond halfway of the story. But then there are not many suspects. A surprising twist at the end never comes up. This atmospheric detective, that also contains humour and short action scenes, shows how Spence arrives at the truth step by step. By that time the reader might have guessed it. Then the question remains how he will prove he is right.

The English of Maarten Maartens is so pure that it is evident that his British roots do not betray themselves. Most of the novels he wrote, he wrote in English, even those stories that take place in The Netherlands. The anonymous The Black-Box Murder remained quite unknown compared to the rest. Maartens was better known for The sin of Joost Avelingh and God's fool, also English titles that did get a Dutch translation. The last few years of his life he lived in the same town where I come from, Doorn, where the castle-like Maarten Maartenshuis still reminds us of his life. His books are, particularly in The Netherlands, long forgotten. The Black-Box Murder ought, however, to be rescued from oblivion.

M.P.O. Books' Bibliography:

Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia, 2004)
De bloodzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005)
Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006)
De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)


  1. Hm, an interesting post! I am afraid I haven't much to say as I've never come across this book before and the author is entirely unfamiliar to me. The period right after Doyle created Holmes is, I find, a little too filled with rip-offs for me to sanely read half the stories written then.

  2. I agree. There were too many uninspired copies of The Great Detective, but a few of them managed to emerge from the shadow of Sherlock Holmes – and made a name for themselves. The Thinking Machine is a great example of this, even though he's been nicknamed the American Holmes.

  3. But even The Thinking Machine has some stories that are clearly Holmes ripoffs, like I posted in the forum about the last story I read. (I never had time to finish the collection, I'm afraid.)