by Doward Wilson
This week we have a review of something more in the noir category instead of a cozy mystery-Return to Hiroshima by Bob Van Laerhoven. We also have an interesting interview with Bob. Bob Van Laerhoven is a best selling crime fiction author, journalist, and translator from Belgium, author of several highly acclaimed literary crime novels and recipient of the prestigious 2007 Hercule Poirot Prize. Details at the end of this post on how to win an ebook copy of Return to Hiroshima, and a link to purchase the book from Amazon.
Return to Hiroshima: by Bob Van Laerhoven
Review by Doward Wilson
This is a complicated tale of greed, corruption, and madness set in the world of 1995 Japan with flashbacks to the end of WWII as the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Japan is reeling from an economic recession that threatens everything that they have accomplished since their loss in the great war.
We meet a Yakuza leader who believes he is the reincarnation of the Japanese demon, Rokurobei. His deformities only reinforce the idea. His daughter, Mitsuko, plays a pivotal role when she runs from her father and his way of life. Xavier is the son of a Belgian diplomat who has returned to the city of his youth to confront his inner demons over the death of his sister. Beate Becht is a world renown photographer whose camera captures everything around her. Inspector Takeda is caught up in the whirlwind of lies and subterfuge surrounding a present-day bank robbery that mimics a past robbery at the same bank. As he chases down clues, he is removed from the case and becomes a hunted felon when he gets too close to the truth.
This was an intense read that kept me turning the pages to discover how it was going to end. Who would win, the forces of “Good” or the forces of “Evil”? The characters are tightly drawn, and the setting is portrayed in such a way that you become part of the action. Anyone who enjoys a dark and murky noir mystery will enjoy this book.
Interview with Bob Van Laerhoven:
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Bob: Way too long, if you ask me. I was an early starter, and in hindsight, that was a good and a bad thing. I was eighteen when I published my first novel. Phobia was a tense, high-spirited – as it behooves for an eighteen-year-old – coming-of-age novel. It gained a lot of attention, primarily in Belgium. I suppose, because I was so young. I was surprised, and so elated by this early, relative “success” that I published another two books – short story collections – before I was twenty. Meanwhile, I had read a lot and learned a little… and it became clear to me that I still had a lot to learn. When I opened my first books, I saw what were in my eyes “glaring mistakes,” so I stopped writing altogether and resumed my studies, waiting for almost eight years before I published again.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Can you tell us a little about it?
Bob: Ah, I see that I beat you in speed on this one. Phobia told the high-strung story of a young university student who became a nervous wreck after a spectacular car accident and was “swallowed up” by the “healing industry,” which earns a lot of money by cataloguing and “treating” so-called mental disorders with all kinds of “funny pills.” The young main character in Phobia was deeply shocked – but not more – by the ravage of the accident he had gotten into but, after a few weeks in hospital, he was already catalogued as being bi-polar and accordingly treated with meds that only made his nervous breakdown far worse.
KRL: Have you always written mysteries/suspense? If not what else have you written?
Bob: Don’t tell anybody, top secret, but, while Phobia was a literary novel, my two early short story collections were science fiction and fantasy. Then came the Great Silence for eight years, after which I again started writing literary novels, this time with a suspense background. From then on, my work has nearly always been a mixture of literature and suspense. The mixture was different in each case. In some novels – I published traditionally 38 of them – I used for instance 45 percent suspense and 55 literature, in others, 60 percent suspense and 40 literature, and so on. It hasn’t happened often, but some of my books were very personal, such as Seven Letters to My Call Girl, an epistolary novel about a great, true, tender, and unusual love between a 48-year-old author and a 27-year-old call girl in the Belgian harbor city of Antwerp.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book? Please share with us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Bob: I have been a student of the Japanese culture and martial arts for more than thirty years and specialized in forms of aiki-no-budo, the “warrior”-version of aikido, but also studied the katana (sword) and naginata (lance). For years, I wanted to write a novel about Japan, but I never had the opportunity to visit the country myself. Then, in 2008, a friend of mine returned from a visit to Hiroshima, and the stories he told me about this iconic city and its citizens became the matrix for Return to Hiroshima. I had to do a lot of research before I found a main character to whom I could relate: Inspector Takeda is born in one of the Japanese concentration camps in the Dutch East Indies in WWII. A Japanese guard raped his Dutch mother. Takeda grows up as a half-breed with a painful father complex. Due to his origins and in spite of his rank as a police officer, Japanese society never has completely accepted him, which makes him more determined and stubborn in his investigations. That stubbornness sets the Wheels of Fate in action in Return to Hiroshima.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Bob: It has always been my ambition to offer something more to readers than just entertainment. My novels are very noir and shocking, even to me, but I’m convinced that they were given to me with a purpose. I had to write and publish them as an illustration of the mysterious “Human Condition” that affects us all. Via suspenseful stories, my novels ask meaningful questions such as, how is it possible that we’re capable of inflicting upon others such atrocities as what our history has known so often? We have so many talents and yet an inexplicable madness drives us to worship the demon of nationalism, and thus to hate “The Other.” We may be technically advanced, but we can’t seem to find what truly drives the human psyche. In my stories, I use metaphors and parables for things we feel but do not understand. Humanity has, ever since its birth, used stories to feel the stirring of mystery and wonder in our hearts. That “resonating vibration” is what my novels try to set in motion.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Bob: I’ve never had a full-time “real” job in my life, so I have always written whenever my Muse prodded me quite hard-handed in the back. During the years, I’ve noticed that there are periods of the day and the night that are never as productive as others. Between 12 and 3 p.m. and 12 and 3 a.m. are my “down” hours. Interesting enough, my most productive parts of day and night change with the seasons. In winter, I’m very active between four and 6 a.m. and in summer I’ll be deep in dreamland in that period.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Bob: Never did. Never will do, although I do know that outlining can evade a lot of “unnecessary” work. In my view, writing a book with an outline is boring. I want to surprise myself, and okay, using the “go-with-the-flow” system will sometimes force me to retrace my steps and delete scenes that, in hindsight, didn’t help the book. On the other hand, it ensures that my mind remains open for new and fascinating twists and plots, and unexpected deeds and reactions of my protagonists. I guess that in all these years, for each novel I have written around 50 pages that wouldn’t have been written if I had used an outline or a storyboard. Fifty pages multiplied by 38 books is…count it out for yourself, I’m not so good in math! But it’s a lot of pages. Still, I would do it all over again myyyyyyyy waaaaaaaaayyyyyy!
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Bob: In an ideal world, I would have a sexy lady ghost-writer who does all the work for me…(sigh)…or, maybe – (double sigh) – two? Even at my age, males are a greedy lot.
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Bob: Looking back at my “career” – funny word for an author, if you ask me – I can say that I never had great difficulties to find madmen – pardon, excuse, sorry – publishers who were interested in my work!
KRL: Do you have a great rejection/critique or acceptance story you’d like to share?
Bob: In 2000, I published, over here in Belgium and in Holland, “Koperen Gaby” (Gaby-of-Copper), an ambitious, multi-layered novel, set in many countries and different timetables, centered around a main character suffering from delusional schizophrenia. The novel made a great splash in the Lowland’s, and received very positive reviews, except one. The reviewer went to great lengths to pulverize my style, my theme, in fact the whole novel. I understood why when I saw his name. He grew up in the same region of Flanders as I, and 24 years earlier, as brazen young men, we had competed for the love of a girl. After a certain time, I was the one she chose. That relationship broke off eventually and I became a writer, and my concurrent became a professor of literature, reviewing in a Flemish newspaper interesting books that were coming out from a new generation of Flemish writers. So, here’s proof that, in the “arena of the arts,” the nether parts can also be active.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Bob: Alas, at my age, I notice that my writing goals are dwindling, even fading away. This is the first time in my life that I didn’t start a new novel immediately after having finished one. Dossier Feuerhand – The Firehand Files – my latest novel in Belgium and Holland, was published in November 2017, and I’m still not writing a new novel. Many projects pop up in my head but are discarded almost immediately. I feel that I want to write something radically different from the complex, literary, shocking, noir novels that I have published so often, something like a fairy-tale for adults. It’s there, on the outskirts of my mind, but for the moment, I can’t seem to muster the courage to begin writing, I feel like a beginner again. I just hope that, at the right moment, the passion and the desire to write will return to me.
KRL: Writing heroes?
Bob: Oh, a lot of them, mainly late 19th-century and first-half-of-20th century writers, in my eyes, the golden period of the novel as a higher form of art. Read André Baillon, Curzio Malaparte, Flaubert, Baudelaire, the de Goncourt- brothers, so many classical stylists. I am a great admirer of stylists. But I also enjoy the novels of more “modern” writers like Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Paul Bowles, Ismail Kadare…the list is too long, really, and it is jock full of Masters to whom I look up. Maybe you find this a peculiar, rather literary, list for a so-called “thriller/suspense/mystery” writer”? Well, I also read Martin Cruz Smith, Robert Harris, and Philip Kerr, just to name a few, authors who seek for that elusive bridge between literature and the suspense genre, just like I do.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Bob: The answer to this one is simple: all types of research that will do the job, be it in libraries (holy places!), via the internet, via contacts, via academic people, experts in the topics I want to address in my books… I will search, and I will find, and one fact leads to another until they become a string of knowledge, solid enough for me to start writing my book…without knowing what the outcome will be…
KRL: What do you read?
Bob: For the moment I’m reading Flaubert’s Parrot from Julian Barnes and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Bob: I’m afraid I have to disappoint you and myself, but lately, we haven’t had time for TV or movies. My wife and I tend for four ex-neglected horses and two shelter hounds around the house and, together with my writing activities, the “job” tends to guzzle all our free time.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Bob: We’re living in a very competitive society, but don’t get into a competition and thus, feelings of jealousy with others. Do compete with yourself to produce the best writer that you can be…don’t be commercial, be ambitious.
KRL: What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Bob: For almost three decades, I have been an avid salsa, meringue, salsatango (urban mix of mambo, salsa, and tango), and bachata dancer. I’m too old now for these vigorous styles, and it pains me that my dancing days are over…
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
To enter to win an ebook copy of Return to Hiroshima, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “hiroshima,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen August 4, 2018. U.S. residents only. If entering via comment please include your email address. You can read our privacy statement here if you like.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast!
You can use this link to purchase the book on Amazon. If you have ad blocker on you may not see the link:
Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases using those links. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.