The Amsterdam of Pieter Vos

The House of Dolls was the first book in my first new crime series since starting the Nic Costa books more than a decade before. The world’s changed a lot since those first books. So I can now try to give readers a better insight into how this new series came about, through photos, videos and insights into the city and the places behind the story.

Interactive map

Here you can see a map and satellite view of some of the places found in the book, including the two cafe bars that inspired the Drie Vaten, the local watering hole of the principal characters.

Free guide for your iPad

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You can download a free iBook about the background to The House of Dolls from Apple’s iBooks service. It will work on iPads and Macs with iBooks. Just click on the cover above.

Where books come from

There’s an old adage in this business: write what you know. I’ve never followed it. I like exploring foreign, unfamiliar territories. Setting stories in places that, to begin with anyway, I barely understand.

Why? It’s because ignorance breeds hard labour and labour breeds better writing. If it ever feels easy – as it might if I were setting a book in, say, London – then I’d feel something’s wrong. When I started on the Nic Costa series I spent months in Rome, studying at a language school in order to speak a little Italian and try to see the place through the eyes of locals, not the distorted, usually inaccurate view of a foreign outsider.

That meant my Rome was built from the ground up, brick-by-brick. This was an important and educational experience. The characters I portray in these stories are locals, not visiting tourists. Both the Costa books and The House of Dolls are published in the countries in which they’re set, translated to the native language. So it’s important to me that they sound right and don’t jar with the reality of the actual location.

I’ve spent many happy months in Italy, in Rome and Venice researching and thinking about the books I set there. When it came to adapting The Killing TV series into novels I was hopping backwards and forwards to Copenhagen, talking to locals, taking photographs, trying to understand the culture and the location that gave us Sarah Lund and her intriguing character.

Writing about what you don’t know makes you try all the harder with the canvas of your story. All writers are different. But for me it makes the book seems brighter, bigger, more real for the effort.

Simple or complex, narrative fiction has a basic structure at its heart. A book is composed of three interdependent elements.

  • Characters
  • The sequence of events that form the narrative.
  • The world that encloses them, a three-dimensional canvas of sights and smells and sounds without which no story can hope to engage the reader.

The world is a vital component, one I need to establish before anything else. There’s a simple rule I apply to all my work: is it transferable? In other words could I take the same characters and narrative and move them from, say, Rome to Vienna? If the answer’s yes then something’s wrong.

A story world has to embrace everything in the book. Both the characters and the events they encounter need to be tied to the location where they take place. For that reason I choose my canvas as carefully as I do my plots.

Why Amsterdam?

The honest answer is… serendipity. Some years ago I was in the Netherlands for a book festival, staying in the place where writers inevitable hole up, a beautiful hotel  called the Ambassade set in several old mansions along the Herengracht canal. It’s on the edge of the city centre, walking distance to most of the places you’d want to go. When I had a little free time I wandered off away from the usual tourist areas, out into what I now know is a district called the Nine Streets. A kind of posh shopping paradise mainly for locals.

After a few minutes I crossed the Berenstraat bridge over the Prinsengracht canal and found myself at the bottom of a curious street. You can see what it looks like in the video below.

It’s called Elandsgracht, which means it was once a canal. But today it’s a road, with a small park full of odd statues and colourful slogans. By accident I’d found the Jordaan, once a rough working class district of the city, very local, very much a tight community.

I had a beer there and got chatting to the chap behind the counter, then a couple of locals too. Just a few streets away around Spui (tip: it rhymes with ‘cow’) and Dam Square Amsterdam is a big, bustling European city. But here I felt as if I were in a village.

It had lots of visual appeal. Houseboats on the Prinsengracht canal. Bikes everywhere. And those odd statues and slogans which made me curious to discover where they came from.

A few things happened then in quick succession.

  • Outside someone cycled past with a little dog in the basket of their big, sit-up-and-beg bike.
  • I couldn’t help noticing there were a few rather lost-looking men in the thirties hanging round looking
    as if they couldn’t decide whether to go for a beer or pop into the coffee shop along the canal for something a little stronger.
  • Then I wandered further up Elandsgracht and saw a plain, grey office building at the top on Marnixstraat. It turned out to be the Amsterdam’s principal police station.

Where do stories come from? A combination of luck, nosiness and the habit of scribbling down ideas the moment they appear. I had all three that day. Almost a decade later when I pulled that note out of the file marked ‘Possibilities’ I realised I now needed that next part in the trio of elements a book requires: characters.

In search of character: Pieter Vos

I’ve always enjoyed writing about people who are essentially ordinary. Heroism in characters who aren’t obviously heroic is so much more interesting than courage in born warriors. Who’d be interested in Achilles if it wasn’t for his heel? So I knew my principal actor was going to be the kind of character who could pop into a cafe in the Jordaan and never turn heads.

I also understood that he was going to live on a houseboat.  Some Amsterdam houseboats are very snazzy, with fancy statues on the deck, little gardens and barbecue areas. There’s even a boat turned into a museum just outside the De Eland cafe (which I confess I’ve never visited).

Characters are defined by their surroundings. From the very beginning I pictured Vos as a decent, intelligent man who’d fallen on hard times. The Jordaan is a charming area, but it’s not long since it was a distinctly rundown, working class district. There are still hard-up people around who’ve lost their way. It also struck me that when they did, this being the community it was, no one would mind too much. In fact, if you were popular, they’d probably do more than tolerate you. They’d try to help get you back on your feet.

And that is Pieter Vos at the start of The House of Dolls. A clever, decent man whose career and family have been torn to shreds. After some kind of breakdown he’s left his job as a senior detective in Marnixstraat up the street and taken to living in a decrepit houseboat on the Prinsengracht with a young wire fox terrier called Sam.

Expecting nothing of the future. Drinking a little too much. Smoking the odd joint. Wasting his day puzzling over an odd item in the Rijksmuseum. A doll’s house that will later turn out to be crucial to the story. He’s genial, a touch depressive, solitary, introverted. But clever to the point of wiliness – Vos is Dutch for ‘fox’. And when the narrative of The House of Dolls starts to drag him out of his drowsy state of lethargy he’s really not sure he wants to go along with the change.

Laura Bakker

A protagonist isn’t enough. I also needed a foil, and finding that character was actually much more difficult than nailing down Vos. I wanted a woman, someone younger than  Vos (who’s in his late thirties). I also thought she could be quite a contrast to him.

A bit stiff and judgmental, Laura doesn’t like the way he’s been frittering away his life. She certainly doesn’t approve of his dependence on others (Vos takes his washing over to the proprietor of the fictional Drie Vaten cafe, who also looks after his dog from time to time).

There’s friction between the two of them for the simplest of reasons. Vos is older, not wiser, just more experienced. He thinks the best any sane police officer can hope for is to prevent the world getting worse. The idealistic Bakker still feels she can make it better.

Two other things shaped Laura in my head. The first was her method of riding a bike. This is best summed up by Terry Pratchett who once said…

My experience in Amsterdam is that cyclists ride where the hell they like and aim in a state of rage at all pedestrians while ringing their bell loudly, the concept of avoiding people being foreign to them.

Except she does all this while texting too.

The second is she’s an outsider. Laura Bakker comes from Friesland in the north of Holland. So to some city folk she’s a bit of a yokel, out of place in Amsterdam.

In fact at the start of the book she’s on the verge of being fired from her job as an ‘aspirant’, a cadet officer, in Marnixstraat. Vos is set to change that, as she’s set to change him.

Sam

There’s a supporting series cast list building in this book: Frank de Groot, the Marnixstraat police station commissaris, or boss, and some other faces in and around the Jordaan. But Vos’s most important companion isn’t human at all. He’s a young wire fox terrier called Sam.

There’s an exchange between Vos and Laura Bakker early on which tells you a lot about why he keeps Sam.

‘Your dog’s very cute,’ Bakker noted as she caught up again. A smile then. For a moment she looked like a naive student fresh out of college trying to persuade the world at large to take notice and treat her seriously.
‘You don’t know him,’ Vos said.
‘I always wanted a pet. We just had working dogs.’
He stiffened with outrage.
‘A pet? Sam’s not a pet.’
Laura Bakker seemed worried she might have offended him. ‘I’m sorry. What is he then?’

Sam’s unruly, a clown, demanding, always there to nag Vos out of bed when he might not be bothered otherwise. A friend he wants to care for. Be responsible for. Truly solitary men don’t need that. Vos’s need for Sam shows us he has a way back into the world if he really wants it.

I have a rule about basing book characters on real people. I never do it. For Sam I made an exception. He comes from my own wire fox terrier Eddie, a constant companion over twelve years of my writing life. Morning walks were my version of an editorial conference. Many’s the narrative problem I’ve hammered out taking him for a stroll out in the countryside.

I’d always intended to dedicate this book to him. It seemed the least he was owed. Then we lost him very suddenly a couple of weeks before The House of Dolls was completed. So it was all the more fitting to begin the book with the simple inscription… For Eddie.

The story world

This book uses some real-life locations and elements of Amsterdam culture, aspects of the city I will doubtless return to in future books. They may not be exactly like this on the ground, of course. I change, adapt and invent as the story requires. That’s why these books are filed under F for Fiction. But here are a few notes on locations and a few cultural elements you’ll find in the book, along with some of the research pictures I took while planning it.

The Jordaan

A little like London’s East End and Manhattan’s Bowery, the Jordaan is a traditional urban working class district on the way up. The area runs from Brouwersgracht, near Centraal Station, around the Canal Ring between the Prinsengracht and Lijnbaansgracht, ending at the Leidsegracht. Just as a true Cockney is supposed to be born within the sound of Bow Bells, the Jordaan
is reckoned to be defined by the ringing of the bells of the Westerkerk, mentioned by Anne Frank whose house is close by.

It’s a charming part of the city, much of it unexplored by tourists. Narrow streets and canals, little restaurants, local shops and cafes. The buildings go back to the 17th century when the sector was developed for the working class who served the more genteel mansions of the Canal Ring. But there are some swish houses too and a number of pretty courtyards hidden away from general view.

The Jordaan has a long history of radical politics, lively local culture, especially song and music, and strong community bonds. All reasons why I made it Pieter Vos’s home. There’s a very Dutch sense of fun in the place especially at the weekend when the many local bars are packed to the gills, full of music and singing.

Nor is the Jordaan a stranger to the darker side of life. At 73 Elandsgracht, not far from Vos’s fictional boat, you can see a plaque marking this building as the site of ‘Sjaco’s fort’. This was a warren of buildings used by a notorious Amsterdam criminal, Jacob Frederick Muller or ‘Sjaco’ who’s hailed in some quarters as a Dutch Robin Hood. Sjaco ran an early 18th-century Amsterdam crime syndicate from this spot until the authorities finally caught up with him and put him to death in the Nieuwmarkt.

Another violent and distinctly bizarre episode took place in 1886 when the police, on the grounds of public order, decided to ban the local pastime of ‘eel heading’ – stringing live eels on ropes across a canal where contestants would try to grab at them from boats.

When the police came in to put an end to the practice a riot soon erupted, known in Dutch as the Palingoproer (Eel Revolt). Twenty six people died in the ensuing violence.

It’s a lot more peaceful these days.

The Canal Ring

Amsterdam has 165 canals with a combined length of 60 miles and 1,281 bridges across them. This highly complex and carefully-managed system dates back to the planners of the early 17th century who dreamed up a way of extending the fast-growing city by building a ring of canals running around the centre like a horseshoe.

Known as the Grachtengordel, this is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of grand mansions from Amsterdam’s Golden Age and lovely views. The three principal canals Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht run through the centre of the city and the Jordaan to reach the outlying Museum District and de Pijp.

Little has changed in recent years in this area, which is fiercely protected against development. But some canals have been filled in over time. The busy square of Spui was once part of a protective moat. Any street with a name ending in ‘gracht’ – canal – was once water too, which is easy to imagine when you see broad straight thoroughfares such as Elandsgracht and Rozengracht, the latter now used by modern trams. Amsterdam’s canals very much define the unique character of the city, as both a mode of transport and an architectural feature.

Houseboats

There are thought to be around two and a half thousand houseboats scattered across the canals of Amsterdam. As you can see from the photos above some are fancy. Some are not.

A few serve as tourist rentals. You’ll also find them converted into tiny museums and art galleries. Most, though, are residential, permanently attached to all the utilities you’d expect in a home – power, water, drainage, internet. For that reason they never move. And while some were originally boats such as klipper barges, a good number are effectively mobile homes in the water, never designed for transport at all.

The city is proud of its houseboats and expects people living in them to maintain their appearance, especially in the Canal Ring. Pieter Vos’s boat doesn’t exactly come up to scratch. It’s definitely in the fixer-upper end of the market, and not getting fixed up either.

So he can expect regular letters from the authorities… which he will ignore.

The Red Light District

One of the oddities of Amsterdam is that its central district is also the seediest. In fact if you did nothing but get off at Centraal Station and wander the streets around the Oude Kerk (Old Church), the city’s oldest building dating back to the 13th century, you might want to climb straight back on the train and go somewhere else.

The streets of the Red Light District – De Wallen to the locals – are lined with history. Rembrandt was a frequent visitor to the Oude Kerk. His wife Saskia is buried there along with a host of Dutch nobles. But step outside the rather plain hulk of a building and you don’t need to walk more than a few feet to find yourself faced with scantily-dressed women beckoning from behind windows with a red light above them.

Sex, drugs and stag parties have been the staple fare of this part of the city for years. There is something of a cleanup going on at the moment. But not much. On the other hand the area is relatively safe, has some excellent restaurants and has become something of a tourist sight, even for those who don’t want to partake of its offerings.

Some of the story takes place in two of the most historic streets. Warmoesstraat (named after the vegetable chard which was once sold here) is one of the oldest thoroughfares in the city, running parallel to the Amstel river from Centraal Station to Dam Square. Somewhere along here Petronella Oortman lived at the beginning of the 18th century, with the doll’s house, now in the Rijksmuseum, which so fascinates Pieter Vos.

Zeedijk – ‘sea dike’ – not far away marks the edge of De Wallen. As well as the customary Red Light District businesses, this is given over in part to Amsterdam’s Chinatown. Vos, being a jazz fan, is also well aware that one of his favourite musicians, the trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, died here when he fell from a window of the Prins Hendrik hotel. A plaque now marks the spot.

The Begijnhof

Tucked away in a quiet corner behind busy Spui, just a short walk from the earthly pastimes of the Red Light District, lies the Begijnhof, a remarkable oasis of peace in the middle of the busy city. It’s home to one of the characters in the book, a location that, to be honest, you couldn’t make up.

Behind a wooden door near the American Book Centre lies a beautiful courtyard – that’s what ‘hof‘ means –  with its origins in a 14th century religious community that was once surrounded entirely by water. This was used by Beguines, lay Catholic women, rather like nuns though they didn’t take holy orders. After the religious altercations of the 16th century, when Amsterdam turned to Calvinism, this was for a while the last legal remnant of Catholicism in the city.  The church was given over to the English, and a hidden chapel was built to maintain the Catholic
tradition.

The last beguine died in 1971 but the beautiful buildings are still used by single women. There’s always a steady stream of tourists who wander through the quiet courtyard to see the chapel and the square when it’s open. You’ll also find an interesting shop attached to the chapel, selling postcards, candles and books about this unique institution.

One reason I wanted to include it in The House of Dolls is that this is a story very much about the conflict of the modern city, about people who are torn between a modern liberal culture and a more rigid, traditional past. Wim Prins, the politician, thinks he can turn back the clock to an earlier, more puritanical time. Pieter Vos is pretty sure he can’t.

The Doll’s House of Petronella Oortman

At the beginning of the book Vos is sitting in the Rijksmuseum, staring at a doll’s house. No ordinary doll’s house, either. This is the real-life creation of a 17th century noblewoman, Petronella Oortman. She lived in Warmoesstraat, now part of the Red Light District as we’ve seen. But back then it was a wealthy neighbourhood. The cost of Petronella’s doll’s house when it was first created probably exceeded that of the average real Amsterdam home of the time.

The Flower Market

It’s impossible to separate Holland from flowers. Tulip-growing is a massive industry. In late April, when the book is set, you see vast splashes of colour, as if straight from the brush of Van Gogh, when you come in to land at Schiphol airport. These are the massive tulip fields that send bulbs and blooms all over the world.

The Bloemenmarkt is the central city flower market, set on the Singel between Muntplein and Koningsplein. There’s an astonishing range of flowers of all kinds sold from shops set on fixed barges on the canal. A bit touristy, and a few of the things on sale may not meet the approval of customs back home. But if you’re looking for the biggest amaryllis you’re ever likely to see in your life, or just a kind of tulip your neighbours will envy, this is the place to come.

Food and drink

You can eat pretty much anything you like in Amsterdam, from fancy French cuisine to Indonesian rijsttafel and Flemish specialities. But Pieter Vos is a local in the Jordaan and doesn’t much go for that kind of thing. Being a single man who lives in bars and cafes he eats like the locals.

Neighbourhood bars rarely serve a full menu but will satisfy customers like Vos with plates of cheese and liver sausage, and on occasion pop the free freshly-boiled egg on the bar.

That’s the way he lives, from moment to moment. But don’t think this isn’t a city for the gourmet. In Elandsgracht, just a few doors from the Prinsengracht, you can find one of the most astonishing cheese shops you’re ever likely to encounter… Kaashuis Tromp. As well as cheese from all over the world there’s fresh bread, canapés and some of the best cheese croissants you’ll ever taste, baked on the spot each day.

Beer’s important too. Amsterdam is, of course, the home of Heineken, and the brewery even has its own tourist attraction in the centre. But you don’t need to stick to mass-produced brews. There are plenty of local ones and specialities from Belgium too, which Vos’s sidekick, Dirk Van der Berg, being something of a beer connoisseur, can’t wait to try.

One Amsterdam institution to look out for is Brouwerij ’t IJ, which has been producing beer in the city since 1985, all traditional and much appreciated on the international circuit. There are plenty of places to try the local brews. Just bear in mind they may be stronger than the ones back home.

If you find yourself in Amsterdam on a Saturday morning a wonderful place to be is the Noordermarkt in the Jordaan, which is given over to a sprawling market with local farmers and organic suppliers. It’s foodie heaven.