Hilde Vandermeeren makes her mark in Flemish crime fiction
A youth writer turned crime author, Hilde Vandermeeren has carved out a place for her work and voice in a male-dominated genre
Her late career jump has paid off. Her 2013 debut novel, Als alles duister wordt (When Everything Goes Dark) earned her the prestigious Hercule Poirot public award, and she has become one of Flanders’ pioneering female thriller authors.
Vandermeeren’s new novel, Schemerzone (Twilight), is based on real-life events that she gleaned from a newspaper. “I read an article about a businesswoman who tweeted something incredibly stupid before getting on a plane,” Vandermeeren (pictured) says. By the time the woman arrived at her destination, the tweet had gone viral. “She ended up losing her job and friends, and that’s what got the ball rolling – the idea that one tweet can ruin your life.”
A powerful and realistic page-turner, Schemerzone focuses on a nurse, Kate, who works in a private clinic in London. She suffers from narcolepsy and falls asleep at impromptu times and locations – something she tries to keep secret at work for fear of losing her job. Although the clinic Kate works at is undergoing renovation work, the building’s hermetic third floor can be rented out for ultra-discreet personal and private care.
When a tweet is sent out from Kate’s Twitter account revealing that the clinic’s current resident is the nine-year-old daughter of a famous football player, she’s not sure who to suspect. She begins to doubt both herself and those around her, with journalists and someone more sinister in hot pursuit.
Not your typical sleuth
Through short chapters that keep up the pace and suspense, Vandermeeren shines a light on narcolepsy, tabloid culture and social media mores in this well-plotted and multifaceted novel. But it’s Schemerzone’s intriguing and complex main character – Kate is anything but your average sleuth – that elevates this to the next level.
She’s an intriguing female character, who’s up against more than just her inner demons. “What fascinates me are the external obstacles as well as the internal ones that led me to the narcolepsy storyline,” Vandermeeren explains. “It’s the perfect affliction to make the reader question the reliability of the main character.”
Like many of the writer’s previous novels, Schemerzone is set abroad. Because Vandermeeren writes standalone novels, she has the freedom to choose the setting for her story as she pleases. “I always start off with my story and then go in search of the perfect setting, and London was ideal for this story,” she said. “It’s a busy international city where you can disappear if you want to.”
She was also drawn to the city because of the influence of its tabloid press. “They really hunt people down there,” she says. “And there’s the fact that a celebrity could realistically take over the floor of a hospital there. That’s probably more likely there than it is here.”
London was ideal for this story. It’s a busy international city where you can disappear if you want to
From youth to crime fiction
Schemerzone is the writer’s fifth crime novel in as many years, but Vandermeeren is by no means a newbie – she had already written lots of children’s books before tackling crime fiction. “I decided to gracefully end that chapter of my career, as I had covered most topics and I didn’t want to repeat myself,” she explains, adding that suspense novels had been a passion of hers since she was 13.
“I devoured all of Agatha Christie’s stories. And in 2012, I thought why not have crack at it myself?” she said. “I love writing crime fiction, as it’s somewhat more complex. You have to keep the suspense going, make sure the plot makes sense and that the characters are realistic. But neither genre is inferior to the other,” she says, contrasting crime and youth fiction.
Vandermeeren admits that making your mark in a genre dominated by men is hard. She notes that things are changing, but nevertheless argues it’s time for female thriller writers to get their due credit. “It’s completely different in the Netherlands, but in Flanders women are an oddity in this genre, which is strange because I have a lot of male readers as well,” she says. “It’s a misconception that women only write for women. It’s challenging to be a female thriller author, but I hope to change something about our place in this genre.”
She has, in any case, definitely left her mark on Flemish crime fiction; Schemerzone exceeds the work of public favourites like Pieter Aspe and Luc Deflo.
Schemerzone (★★★★) is published in Dutch by Uitgeverij Q
Photo: Rob Stevens
More new crime books this summer
Blankenberge Blues • Pieter Aspe & Koen Strobbe (Manteau)
Flanders’ most popular crime author, Pieter Aspe, joins forces with Koen Strobbe, himself winner of the 2015 Aspe Award. The setting for this team effort is the cold and dark Flemish coast during winter. When a sperm whale is washed ashore, a band of misfits hatch a plan to sell the amber in its intestines, but they can’t simply cut the whale open and start hawking the substance. Unable to walk away from what could earn them a fortune, they penetrate the underbelly of the black market instead. Blankenberge Blues is an entertaining and occasionally funny read that casts the Flemish coast in an unexpected light. ★★★☆
De zomer van de doden (Summer of the Dead) • Toni Coppers (Manteau)
Toni Coppers has written another classic whodunit focused on detective Liese Meerhout. In De zomer van de doden, Meerhout and her colleague Michel Masson travel to Bolsena, Italy, to investigate the murder of an Antwerp native who’s found in the catacombs of an old church. They find few clues in Italy, but the pair receive word that a fisherman in Antwerp has a found a briefcase containing the belongings of a 1993 murder victim. The fingerprints on the briefcase match those of the dead man in Bolsena. Could this really be a coincidence? ★★☆☆
Over elk vergeten heen (Past all Oblivion) • Jo Claes (Houtekiet)
Mythology and iconography are two threads that run throughout Jo Claes’ oeuvre, and Over elk vergeten heen is no different. In this latest novel, detective Thomas Berg witnesses the sale of a bronze statue by the local sculptor Constantin Meunier at an Antwerp art auction. When its new owner is murdered shortly after the sale, Berg realises the killer is replicating the mythical iconography behind the sculpture. Packing in history, mythology and murder, this is vintage Claes. ★★☆☆