THE MAINE MASSACRE by Janwillem van de Wetering
Houghton Mifflin; 256 pages; $8.95
The demimonde of mystery fans is divided into amateurs and professionals.
What aficionado has not been confined in a summer cottage on a rainy day with someone who does not know about thrillers and keeps announcing every 40 pages who killed Roger Ackroyd or who has :he key to the locked room? The connoisseur knows that the fun of a suspense novel lies not in competing with the author but in admiring his craft.
There are amateurs and pros among writers too. One of the most influential pros is Ed McBain. He did not invent the police "procedural," but his 87th Precinct books have attracted several imitators, especially in Europe. The most famous is the Martin Beck series by the Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who made their Stockholm cops into moody eccentrics and stopped their plots for digressions into psychology and politics.
The Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering writes about Amsterdam policemen and the statutes and terrors that govern their lives, but this casual author makes Sjöwal-Wahlöö look like Ellery Queen. Van de Wetering's novels meander along, with asides on the foibles of human nature and gracefully written filaments of Eastern philosophy. The plot is announced early in the narrative and dispatched at the end as quickly as a victim. The author, 48, was once a Buddhist monk in Japan (he wrote about that arduous life in An Empty Mirror). He returned to The Netherlands, spent some time in the Amsterdam police force, and migrated again, this time to Maine. The new book is set there, in a coastal town called Jameson, just below the Canadian border. The author's usual characters are on hand: the old commissaris, who has arrived in the U.S. to help his sister settle her affairs after her husband's sudden death, and his young sergeant, Rinus de Gier. The commissaris' brother-in-law is only one of several people who have lived on a peninsula called Cape Orca and who died or disappeared, leaving the land a cursed place. The motive for all this is not very deep. The story would not be ten able if the local sheriff were not a very new man in the territory and his helpers foreign. As the old man notes, the towns people are not mystified at all: "They know the country, the undercurrents."In The Maine Massacre, the plot is the undercurrents. The principal character is the snow. It isolates the town and stills all action. The escapes and chases that fill an ordinary story are stalled in Jameson. A marksman in snowshoes is the only prowling menace. In the commissaris ' whining sister Suzanne, van de Wetering finds a way to spoof his native country and contrast it to Maine. The old lady lives sur rounded by tacky reproductions of Dutch scenes and execrable examples of porcelain. Her brother briefly thinks that she may have killed her husband but concludes that he is overinfluenced by the fact that her meals constitute the foulest kind of home cooking.