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The first English detective novel by a Dutch writer

Last updated 1 month ago by UtrechtCentral.com

The man who discovered the murderer

The Black Box Murder.
This 1889 novel, written in English and published in London, did not identify the author. Somewhat curiously, the title page stated, “The Black Box Murder by the Man Who Discovered the Murderer.”
The book went on to achieve international fame, becoming popular in both the UK and the USA.

For a long time it was considered the first detective novel penned by a Dutch author. That, as we will see later on, was a misconception. However, it was definitely the first detective novel by a Dutch writer in English, and one of the most popular ever.

What’s in a name? Plenty

The author was the magnificently named Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwartz. He had obtained his doctorate in Law at the Utrecht University and lived in the rural estate of Doorn, just outside the city.

Born Jozua Marius Willem Schwarz, in 1889 he had received permission to add his great-grandmother’s name, van der Poorten, to his own.
Before penning his detective novel, he had published two books on poetry and two tragedies under the name JMW Schwartz. But now, as Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwartz, perhaps the problems of fitting this humongous 30-letter monstrosity in the title page prompted him to publish his first detective novel without a name.

The following year, in 1890, his second crime novel, The Sin of Joost Avelingh was published by the same publishers Remington and Co. For this novel Schwarz used the nom de plume Maarten Maartens. That was the name under which he went on to achieve fame. He moved away from crime fiction after the first two books, but remained a prolific writer, ending up with 14 novels, four collections of short stories, several plays and some poetry.

A photograph of Maarten Maartens taken sometime around 1900. Photo credit: Unknown author / Public domain

Wide Acclaim

Widely read in the English-speaking world during his literary career, Maartens was highly regarded by contemporaries of the stature of Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and even Leo Tolstoy.

While Woolf said that his novel The New Religion was written ‘with considerable vivacity’, Shaw described it as ‘a scathing and quite justifiable exposure of medical practice.’ Maartens and his wife both suffered from several physical ailments which necessitated a lot of interaction with doctors. This perhaps provided the author significant insight into the profession.

Later, when his novel Herman Pols, peasant was published, Hardy wrote to Maartens in a letter: “The way in which you have lifted the veil inch by inch in revealing the lives of the chief characters shows in my opinion real art.”

International man of mystery

Maartens was born in Amsterdam in 1858, but moved to London at the age of six. His father, a vicar with the Scottish Missionary Church, had moved there to work among the London Jews. Maartens owed his proficiency in the English language due to those early years.

Although he returned to the Netherlands as a 12-year-old, through his life he remained a constant visitor to London. He remained very popular in England’s literary circles, with publisher George Bentley, and the creator of Peter Pan, JM Barrie, being his close friends.

In 1905, Maartens received an honorary doctorate at the University of Aberdeen, together with Thomas Hardy. Two years later, he visited the United States and delivered speeches in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and at the Peace Congress in New York. He was even received by Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.

Maarten Maartens and daughter Ada on their English Humber in 1905. Photo: maartenmaartens.nl

The mystery of the first Dutch detective novel

For a long time it was assumed that Maarten Maartens was the first Dutchman to write a detective novel. However, this claim, as mentioned earlier, is incorrect.
The oldest Dutch detective novel was, in fact, penned by L. van Eikenhorst (pseudonym of the journalist Jan David de Vries), as far back as in 1845. It bore the prosaic title Een bijvoegsel tot de waarachtige physiologie van Amsterdam (A supplement to the true physiology of Amsterdam). Just as Maarten’s two crime novels found wide readership in England, Eikenhorst’s largest reader base was in Germany where his novel was translated into Amsterdams Geheimnisse.

And in 1887, two years before The Black Box Murder, Nicolina Christina Sloot, writing under the beautiful pseudonym Melati van Java, published the detective novel Ontmaskered (Unmasked).

However, Maarten was definitely the first Dutch writer to pen a detective novel in English. And he remained the most successful such writer till the arrival of Jan Willem van de Wetering with his fascinating Gijpstra and de Gier novels of the 1970s and 1980s.

Van de Wetering’s novels achieved success in their Dutch versions as well — the writer penning both the English and the Dutch books, often making them significantly different from each other. In contrast, however, the novels of Maarten Maartens never became successful in Dutch translations.

Het Maarten MaartensHuis

Having married into money, Jozua Schwartz, despite his law degree, did not have to work for a living. As Maarten Maartens, he continued to write.
In 1884 he and his wife Anna bought a rural estate in Doorn (about 23 minute drive from Utrecht via A12 in the modern day). There he had a castle built, designing part of it himself. The resulting country house was completed in 1903 and Maartens called it Zonheuvel (Sun Hill).

Maartens was rather strongly affected by the atrocities in Europe during the Great War. Early into the war, he fell into a depression. His books had also started to fail by the end of the first decade of the century, and that might have had something to do with his affliction as well.

Maartens died in 1915. Later his daughter Ada rechristened Zonheuvel as Het Maarten Maartenshuis (‘The Maarten Maartens House’). The castle was turned it into a conference centre and a place for youth work. An emergency hospital was established here during the Second World War.

Today there are rooms for rent and it continues to function a conference centre. The hotel Landgoed Zonheuvel has been added to the estate, and it houses several meeting rooms for corporate use.

Some rooms, including the library, have been left in the same condition they were in when Maarten Maartens was still alive.

Het MaartenMaartensHuis. Photo credit: Basvb / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL
Arunabha Sengupta
Arunabha Sengupta
Arun is a freelance writer, sports correspondent, statistician and a tour guide. He has lived in The Netherlands for the last 12 years and is in love with the country. He is especially fascinated by the way the country combines fascinating history with modern liberalism, the busy touristic hub with the quaint peaceful countryside.

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