Wednesday, 9 November 2016

"The Harbour Master" by Daniel Pembrey






Maverick cop Henk van der Pol is thinking about retirement when he finds a woman’s body in Amsterdam Harbour. His detective instincts take over, even though it’s not his case. But Henk’s bigger challenge is deciding who his friends are – not to mention a vicious street pimp who is threatening Henk’s own family. As his search for the killer of the woman in Amsterdam Harbour takes him into a corrupt world of politics and power, Henk finds himself facing some murky moral choices.

Well it's difficult not to pick up a book which has a quote from one of my literary idols, Susan Hill, on the front cover! She endorses the novel as a "cracking tale with verve and style" and of course, I'm not going to disagree with her!

This is the first instalment in a series of crime thrillers set in Amsterdam. Pembury establishes a sense of place and setting extremely well, with vivid and authentic detail. The description is not contrived or forced but subtle references, inferences and the odd slip into colloquial language locate the reader very firmly in Amsterdam. His creation of the docks, harbour and Amsterdam itself are convincing and make it very easy for the reader to picture the location even if we have never visited there.

The book begins with the discovery of a dead body. Henk watches and his description of the body is brutally ugly it prepares us for the complexity and nature of this crime thriller.

"I had my phone out, in order to film the removal of the body. The woman's thighs and arms had swollen up to Frankenstein-like proportions, her dark trousers and top so stretched that they'd ripped at the seams."

It did remind me a little of the one of the opening sequences of the French TV drama "Spiral", but thankfully, although Pembury immerses us in a dark world of illegal human trafficking and the red light district, the violence and any temptation to add gratuitous detail is kept to a minimum. This is a writer interested in characters, human behaviour and a complex narrative.

Henk is an interesting character. Pembury has created a very distinctive voice which feels original and also full of gravitas. I found that he was a man I was able to picture quickly, and that his intelligence, determination, thoroughness and persistence was consistent throughout the novel. Pembury paints a very good picture of a man with integrity -

"...excuses wouldn't help the woman hoisted out of the harbour. She didn't need excuses, she needed justice." 

-and he is definitely a protagonist who can sustain further instalments as Pembury develops this in to a detective series.

It was interesting to read about a police office at the end of his career and an interesting choice by Pembury, but it works very successfully and the narrative voice feels authentic and convincing. It also adds a further level of intrigue and risk as Henk struggles to stay on the case and avoid being usurped by younger men.

"You've been a good cop, Henk. My advice? Have people here remember you that way."

I really enjoyed Henk's relationship with his wife. Initially I wasn't sure if the formal way in which they often responded to each other was amusing or too detached but again, it works.

"Mrs van der Pol was in her house slippers, watching a rerun of some talent show competition I vaguely recognised, working her way through a jar of English liquorice." 

Henk is actually a man who is very committed to his family. And when their safety is threatened it adds a great sense of tension and danger to the story.

"Was I so obsessed with Slavic that I'd created the very problems for me and my family I was now trying desperately to solve?"

Henk's relationship with his daughter is captured equally well. I enjoyed his conversation with her when he notices a diamond ring on her finger - it actually reflects so much about both characters and the dynamics between them.

"Do you know if it's OK?.....A conflict free diamond." 
"That's hardly a question I can ask now is it? Oh thanks so much for the lovely gift, can I just see the paperwork for it?" 

Pembury has clearly spent a lot of time researching this novel. He has obviously dedicated time to making sure every detail is accurate and that he tells a story that stands up to the scrutiny of serious crime readers. He tackles complex and contemporary issues with confidence. I was intrigued to read that Pembury lived in East Amsterdam for a while and spent time with an undercover team from the Dutch National Crime Squad. This has clearly inspired him to write this first instalment of the Harbour Master series.

"The Harbour Master" is quite an involved read. It's not overly long at just over 300 pages, but the prose is quite dense and sophisticated in style. There is a lot of information and threads to follow and although the plot moves along, it is not a book I would describe as a traditional page turner. However, this book will definitely appeal to crime fans who are looking for a new detective to follow and it definitely has the grit, realism and depth that readers want from European Noir books.

The early reviews of this book are excellent and Goodreads says:

The Harbour Master delivers for Amsterdam what fans of Scandinavian crime fiction have come to love: a fascinating light shone on the dark side of a famously liberal society, combining vivid characterisation with ice-cold suspense.

"The Harbour Master" is published by No Exit Press on the 10th November 2016.

My thanks to No Exit Press for a review copy of this novel.

If you would like to find out more about Daniel Pembury, this book or No Exit Press, please visit their website no exit.co.uk or follow them on Twitter @noexitpress @DPemb

If you would like to see more of my reviews and recommendations, please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)

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