van der Vlugt, Simone - 'Shadow Sister' (translated by Michele Hutchison)
Dutch crime writers, even those billed as Holland's Queen of Crime, must have a problem getting into English-language editions. The fact is, the Dutch are a bit too much like the British. Their fictional creations don't qualify for the colourful covers of Mediterranean novels, invoking devil-may-care policing methods, eccentric supporting characters and fifteen-course menus taken over a long lunch in a seafront café. Nor do they have the advantages of the somehow-attractive Scandinavian melancholia, introspection and snowstorms.
SHADOW SISTER is a case in point. Its setting in suburban Rotterdam may as well be suburban Slough, and its Further Education college, shopping mall, and nightclubs could be situated in Leicester, Hull or Stoke. The characters are teachers, photographers, software engineers and teenagers, all people that you might find in your local town centre next Saturday lunchtime.
Van der Vlugt uses the ordinariness of her chosen setting to great advantage – the danger is very close to home. Intimidation by groups of young men in a school classroom or a shopping mall is something with which most readers will be able to sympathise: "Bilal is standing on the other side of the street, wearing a hoodie, surrounded by friends...What to do? Go back? Walk on? Show him I'm not afraid of him?"
The book's two narrators, both using the first person, are identical twin sisters Elisa and Lydia. One is increasingly unhappily married, a teacher in an inner-city college, and a mother. The other is more laid-back and outwardly less responsible, a freelance photographer. Soon, one sister is murdered and the other is unpicking the fabric of her life to find her killer. The narrative structure has the reader flitting from the events leading up to the death to its aftermath, approaching the resolution from two directions at once.
A suspense novel featuring twins is in difficult territory. The reader is immediately on the alert for all sorts of tricks – mistaken identity or the assumption of one twin's personality and life by the other – and it would be wrong for a review to comment on any of these too much. However, it is safe to say the twins' characters are well crafted and that the author has managed to avoid creating a stereotypical relationship. Although one twin is dominant, van der Vlugt hasn't exaggerated this or made it into a pathological problem: the "domineering personality didn't really bother me. It was always well intentioned and, when it came down to it, I always did what I wanted."
So you won't read SHADOW SISTER and long to visit Holland, however it would be a great shame to pass it up, since this is a good suspense novel with a satisfying twist.
Read another review of SHADOW SISTER.
Rich Westwood, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.