Crime writer pits serial killer against Flanders’ favourite female detective

Summary

Flemish author Toni Coppers is back with another instalment of the Liese Meerhout series, which sees the Antwerp detective face her most formidable case yet

Tenth time is the charm

Liese Meerhout, the brainchild of Flemish crime writer Toni Coppers, is a police detective who fights injustice and will do anything to save the innocent. For eight years running, she’s been the star of the best-selling thriller series bearing her name.

In 1995, while working as a travel journalist for VRT, Coppers launched his literary career with De beha van Madonna: brieven van een reiziger (Madonna’s Bra: Letters From a Traveller), a collection of letters addressed to friends and acquaintances. Ten years later, he published his first novel, Dixit, a pastiche about a communications guru, which was quickly followed by Heilige nachten (Holy Nights).

“Those books gave me the necessary push to become a full-time writer,” Coppers tells me. “Niets is ooit (Nothing is Ever) became the first book in the crime series about Liese Meerhout, who started investigating art crimes in Brussels in 2008. But she moved to Antwerp in 2013 to work as a homicide detective.”

Coppers, who won Flanders’ Hercules Poirot prize for crime fiction in 2014, comes from a non-fiction background, but he absolutely adores thrillers. “I love crime fiction because it deals with issues of a fundamentally ethical nature – good and evil, and that fine line in-between,” he says. 

The underdog

More importantly, however, “it also deals with human flaws, which I find particularly fascinating. Underdog characters, for example, have a lot of empathy, and this frequently leads to catastrophic consequences.”

His latest novel, De Hondenman (The Dog Man), is full of underdogs. Meerhout and her team are faced with an intricate and baffling case when the body of a woman is found in Antwerp’s Galgenweel lake.

The perpetrator appears to have taken the victim’s heart. Soon several other bodies, all killed the same way, turn up abroad, making this the most complicated and wide-reaching case Meerhout has ever had to face. 

I chose a female character because I was tired of the cliché that detectives have to be grumpy old men with a drinking problem

- Toni Coppers

All of Coppers’ novels can be read separately as they focus on individual cases, but when read chronologically, you delve in the intricate details of his character’s psyche and her personal life. 

“To me, Liese is flesh and blood,” Coppers says. “She’s been with me for quite some time and she has evolved like real people do. Technically, she might not the best cop because she’s rather chaotic, but she has a heart of gold.”

Meerhout is also one of very few Flemish female investigators with her own series. “I chose a woman because I was tired of the cliché that detectives have to be grumpy old men with a drinking problem,” Coppers says. “I wanted to create a young and hopeful female character who finds her way in the world and does what she believes in – making the world a little more righteous.”

De Hondenman is also unique because it features the series’ first serial killer. “I’ve never written about one before,” Coppers says. “It never felt challenging enough because serial killers often lack motive. For the 10th instalment, however, I wanted to do something special, create a real tour de force”. 

On screen

While working on his novels, Coppers puts a lot of time into research, but not everything ends up in the finished story. What matters to him is that every detail is accurate, so he learns about more than is probably needed.

The Liese Meerhout series has proven to be a huge success, and the broadcasting network VTM has recently adapted it into a series. Coppers aired this spring, with Flemish actor Hilde De Baerdemaeker (Louislouise, Dossier K) in the role of Meerhout.

The series has met with great critical acclaim and a second season is in the works. “I’m very pleased with the result,” Coppers says. “Hilde De  Baerdemaeker is the true embodiment of Liese Meerhout.”

De Hondenman is a real treat, filled with intense dialogue and several unexpected twists. It is also a slow-burning novel, where psychology and character development take central stage. Lovers of lots of action and nail-biting suspense risk being disappointed. But if it’s well-rounded characters, an intoxicating atmosphere and a cosmopolitan setting you’re after, look no further.

De Hondenman (★★★☆) is published in Dutch by WPG

Photo: Gerrit Op de Beeck

More crime fiction to take to the beach this summer

Relikwie (Relic) Bart Debbaut (Lannoo)
Former banker Bart Debbaut has written his eighth novel, and sixth thriller, to date. Relikwie is the latest instalment in his series featuring Leuven detectives Leyssens and van Cattendyck. A young mother ventures into a passionate affair with an attractive widower she has met at a weekly swim session. What starts out as pure escapism soon turns into a harrowing threat to her family. Relikwie is a thrill ride, even if pretty predictable. ★★☆☆

Drift (Temper) Luc Deflo and Sormaria Marchan (Borgerhoff & Lamberigts)
Luc Deflo is one of Flanders’ top crime authors and a past winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize. Known for his in-depth psychological profiles, he collaborated with Aloka Liefrink in 2014 for the thriller Onderhuids (Under the Skin). This time, he has written a novel with his wife, Sormania Marchan. Inspector Masha Kirilenko and her team are baffled when a decomposed body turns up in Hasselt’s canal. There are no leads on the killer, or on the victim. Marchan adds a nice nuance to a novel that is otherwise classic Deflo – intriguing and fast-paced. ★★★☆

Het kwalijk geheugen (The Ill-Tempered Memory) Marc Peirs (Houtekiet)
Marc Peirs grew up in the Flemish Ardennes and is now a journalist for the VRT. This year, he became their foreign correspondent in Poland. For this debut novel, he has returned to his roots in Kluisbergen, East Flanders. The peaceful rural town is witness to the brutal murder of a prostitute. Ghent police detective Victor Vansina takes the case, aided by his girlfriend, radio journalist Lydia Blauw. With winter lurking in the background, the plot soon thickens. Het kwalijk geheugen is flawed but entertaining. ★★☆☆

Scorpio Hilde Vandermeeren (Querido)
After a stint as a teacher and a degree in clinical psychology, Hilde Vandermeeren, who has already written more than 40 children’s books, has decided to take a stab at crime fiction. Scorpio is her fourth thriller and focuses on Gaelle, who wakes up in a psychiatric hospital in Berlin. The protagonist has been seriously wounded but has no memory of what happened. That is until the police inform her that she tried to kill her seven-year-old son. Unable to come to terms with the accusation, she goes in search of the truth. Scorpio is a well-written thriller, and Vandermeeren has a keen eye for character. ★★★☆