Theatre director Peter Perceval goes dark with thriller debut


Peter Perceval has always been a fan of detective thrillers, and now he’s moved from writing and directing plays to creating his own cop heroine

Flanders’ Lisbeth Salander

Peter Perceval has had a long and extensive career in theatre. He had translated, adapted, directed and written numerous plays before starting his own production company, 3Pees, with his wife, actress Ann Nelissen, in 1997, focusing on comedy.

After numerous plays such as The Vagina Monologues, Penis Monologues, Mother Monologues and Men Monologues, Perceval (pictured) was ready for something new. “I love detective fiction,” he says, “and I thought, why not have a crack at it?”

His debut novel, De Hollywoodfactor (The Hollywood Factor), focuses on Alessandra Vaccaro, an inspector at the federal homicide department. She’s a tough cookie whose heart always lands her in trouble, which is why she has dedicated herself to her job.

When philanthropist and exchange broker Georges Waltz is found murdered, nailed to a tree, Vaccaro takes charge but is soon confronted with her own past – especially when the killer decides to make things personal.

“The story had been lingering for some time,” Perceval explains. “I just needed an incentive to start writing. And then I read the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson. The main character is such an incredibly strong woman, and I felt that was something Flemish crime fiction hadn’t personified yet.”

Inspector Vaccaro is indeed a strong, intelligent and intriguing character. “I wrote her biography,” he says, “to have a clear picture of her to work with, and, by doing so, I created someone who offers me a lot of opportunities.  I’m now working on the second novel, and it’s a progression of her life story as well as a new case.”

Keep ’em guessing

At first glance, comedy and thriller are two very different genres, but De Hollywoodfactor tackles subjects you’d find in both genres: prostitution, identity theft, tax evasion and delinquents.

Writing for theatre is like a sprint. A novel is more like a triathlon

- Peter Perceval

“In comedy you have to try to surprise people,” Perceval says. “People laugh at the unexpected. And it’s the same with thrillers; you thrive on the unexpected. Comedy is only good when you observe the world from the viewpoint of annoyance and surprise. Those two features also make the main character of a thriller intriguing, because then they perceive the world from a fresh perspective.”

But there is one big difference, he says, when it comes to writing for theatre and writing a novel: “Writing for theatre is like a sprint. Writing a novel is more like a triathlon.”

The cathedral, the Grand Bazaar shopping centre and the Jewish neighbourhood are just a few of the Antwerp locations featured in the book. Perceval gives us a vibrant and atmospheric depiction of the city by the Scheldt and its surroundings, places the Antwerp native holds dear.

“I’ve lived in Antwerp my entire life, so I know the city inside out,” he says. “It’s not just about writing what you know; I also wanted to give people who aren’t familiar with Antwerp a clear and tangible depiction. I’m a big fan of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, and I love the way you get to experience Oslo through his work.”

Sassy & snappy

Perceval’s background in theatre is the initial reason why dialogue plays such a vital role in De Hollywoodfactor, but it goes further than that. “I’m a big fan of Anglo-Saxon crime fiction,” he says. “I’ve read a lot of Mo Hayder, Nicci French, Elmore Leonard… and when I read a Flemish novel, I’m always disappointed when it comes to dialogue.”

Flemish crime novels, he says, “lack that spark of authenticity that you find in English thrillers. So if I wanted to set myself apart, that would be the way to go.” And he has succeeded: His debut novel is filled with sassy, snappy small talk.

He’s currently writing the second instalment in the Alessandra Vaccaro series and will continue to combine theatre and novels;  he has several shows starring Nelissen and comedian Bert Kruismans planned for this autumn.

De Hollywoodfactor is an exciting read, a roller coaster ride of great characters, playful dialogue and twists that keep readers on their toes. The lead in particular draws you not only into the plot but also into her own world, as she has several secrets waiting to be uncovered. The book took Perceval six years to write; let’s hope we don’t have to wait that long for the next one.

De Hollywoodfactor (★★★★) is published in Dutch by Witsand

More new crime fiction this month

De doos (The Box)
Pieter Aspe • Manteau

In his 36th crime thriller, Pieter Aspe focuses on revenge. Barend, son of a Second World War collaborator, is found dead in his house. Several days later, Robert, son of a war hero, is brutally murdered. Coincidence? Or payback? Everything will be cleared up when the unstoppable detective Van In finds a box that was left in Elounda on Crete, the place where the TV series Who Pays the Ferryman? was filmed. De Doos is classic Aspe: light and mildly entertaining, ideal fare for a heat wave. ★★☆☆

Het laatste oordeel (The Final Judgement)
Toni Coppers • Manteau

On a hot summer night, a 12-year-old girl disappears from her home in Berchem. Everyone thinks she has run away, but she didn’t take her mobile phone or medication with her, creating a whole lot of suspicion and doubt for detective Liese Meerhout. When a 13-year-old disappears several days later, the hunt is on for a kidnapping psychopath. The deeper authorities dig, the more shocking it gets. Het laatste oordeel is another Liese Meerhout adventure: bold, riveting and an ideal poolside read. ★★★☆

Teek (Tick)
Luc Deflo • Borgerhoff & Lambrigts

The body of a young girl is found buried in a garbage bag in Hofstade. Inspectors Nadia Mendonck and Dirk Deleu want to keep her identity a secret, hoping to lure out the murder who lives in the gossipy town of Zemst. When a suspect is identified, the girl’s on-off lover, things get out of hand and he, too, winds up dead. Teek is an average thriller with the occasional plot twist and some smouldering suspense, and Deflo excels when it comes to the psychology and motives. ★★☆☆

Stille grond (Silent Ground)
Hilde Vandermeeren • Singel

Hilde Vandermeeren is one of the few female crime writers in Flanders, and Stille Grond is the former children’s author’s third thriller. On a stormy night in 1983 Glasgow, six-year-old Rosie vanishes without a trace, leaving behind her twin sister, Ruby, and baby sister, Eve. Thirty years later, Eve, who is now a maths professor, gets a message from someone saying they are sorry for what happened to Rosie. Since the police won’t do anything, Eve takes matters in her own hands, in a fresh and fluently written page-turner. ★★★☆