The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Once in a while one finds an extraordinary crime novel, a gem amid all the humdrum stuff one reads, amid all the Grishams, Connellys, Kellermans, Graftons, etc., which are virtually indistinguishable from each other and follow the same template that has been proven to attract readers. The authors I mention are actually good writers (God forbid having to read Dan Brown), but their books are, basically, all the same. Fill a 400-page template with different locations, different modes of murder, and different characters, then "humanize" the characters by adding long cheesy passages about their personal life, and voila, you have a new crime book. Not an ounce of originality - just astute business sense. Tim Krabbé, the Dutch author of "The Vanishing", seems to be saying "Screw the conventions, let's do things differently", and I so much admire him for that.
This extraordinary novella (titled "The Golden Egg" in original) has been made into two movies, a good Dutch film and a crappy American remake with changed ending, so most everybody knows the plot. A Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia are vacationing in France. Saskia disappears without trace at a service area on an autoroute. Years pass, Rex is with another woman, yet he is still searching for Saskia. Enter Raymond, the man responsible for the disappearance. We learn about his motives and Rex' and Raymond's trajectories are on a collision course.
There are three main reasons why I will award this deeply disturbing novella a very high rating, even if I find the ending laughably bad. First chapter contains some of the best writing I have ever read in a crime novel. The growing horror of Rex' realization that his life is about to change forever is portrayed with short, clean, crisp sentences, with zero extraneous fluff. The chapter is so good that I read it three times, and even the third time I found it stunning. One has to salute the translator as well for not spoiling the original.
Raymond Lemorne's motives, masterfully portrayed by the author, make him one of the most fascinating characters in mystery prose. We meet him when he is sitting on the railing of a second-story balcony and deliberating whether to jump or not. "He thought about what would happen if he jumped. He considered the pros and cons, with a dark feeling at the back of his mind that it had already been decided that he would jump." Obviously, he does jump, breaking his leg and arm. To Raymond the only thing that really exists is what happens in his mind. What the so-called real world is for other people does not exist for Raymond. Only the constructs of his mind, the mind games are real. Other people's existence matters only as far as they come into his mental games. When he plans to kill a young woman, killing one of his daughters is "out of the question" only because it would be easy to lead the evidence to him. His daughters are not more important to him than his shoes or furniture.
Finally, and to me this is the most salient factor, this novella is barely 100 pages long, but its impact is stronger than that of great majority of run-of-the-mill mystery books that use the regulation length of 400 pages, even if they are written by good, respected authors. Despite its brevity, it is a full-fledged story surgically cleaned of all the unnecessary extraneous stuff that mainstream mysteries are so full of.
The ending..., well, it explains the Dutch title, but to me it is a letdown. The disappointing ending is the only reason for not awarding the novella five stars.
Four and a half stars.
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