Oline H. Cogdill

(Mystery Scene continues its ongoing series in which authors talk about their plots, characters or process.)

Author Michael Niemann’s third novel is Illegal Holdings, which finds his series character, United Nations fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen, on assignment in Maputo, Mozambique. He’s sent there to find out if UN money is being properly used. But there is a little matter of a $5 million transfer that is missing.

Niemann grew up in a small town in Germany, ten kilometers from the Dutch border. Crossing that border often at a young age sparked in him a curiosity about the larger world. He studied political science at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn and international studies at the University of Denver. A fiction-writing course changed his career direction.

In this essay, Niemann shows how his character, Valentin Vermeulen, views the world and his background.

Here’s Valentin Vermeulen speaking:
How does a kid who grew up on a farm in western Belgium end up being a globetrotting investigator for the United Nations? Well, stuff happened. I should just leave it at that. The less said, the better. But you’re not going to be satisfied with that answer. I can see that.

So let’s get the formalities out of the way. My name is Valentin Vermeulen. I’m six feet tall, I got blond hair and my face is on the large side—rugged would be a kind description. I carry a Belgian/European Union passport. I was born a few years before The Clash started performing just across the North Sea. I used to fantasize about London. I’d be walking on the dike, staring across the steel gray water, and imagined being in a big city.

My village wasn’t on any map. Just a bunch of small farms, raising Guernsey cows and the crops necessary to feed them. Once a day, the coop truck stopped to pick up the 100 gallons of milk. Thinking back, I’m still amazed that my dad stuck it out as long as he did. By the late 1970s, the European Community was awash in milk and small producers like my father were totally unprofitable. The government wanted to consolidate farms and eventually, he threw in the towel.

We moved to Antwerp in 1983. Talk about culture shock. The biggest city in Belgium, a huge port, and me, the kid from the boondocks. The beginning was tough. But the hick from the sticks could stand on his own and learned the ropes. After school I was drafted and served in the Belgian military. The weird logic of bureaucracy assigned me to military intelligence. Good thing, too, instead of crawling through the dirt, I got to sit inside and analyze intelligence reports. The Cold War was still a thing and we were paranoid enough to see Soviet spies everywhere. As a draftee I didn’t do any spying in mufti, but I did get a course on clandestine investigations. It wasn’t really my thing. Gorbachov was in power and I could see that the Cold War was about to end. So I quit as soon as the conscription ended..

I enrolled at the law faculty of the University of Saint Ignatius of Antwerp. Justice had always been such an abstract idea and seemed to have little to do with the law. Observing my dad being pushed off the farm taught me that. It was all legal and it was unjust. How could that be? At the university, I learned that law isn’t some abstract concept, but something made and remade every day. Once I figured that out, I found my calling. I specialized in financial crimes.

That first year, I also found my first real love, Marieke, who was studying social work. We married right away and ten months later, our daughter Gaby was born. In hindsight, it was all too fast, we should’ve been more careful. But at the time we couldn’t wait to start our family.

I got good marks and the Crown Prosecutor’s office in Antwerp hired me right after I got my law degree. I was the financial guy in the organized crime unit. The cases kept on coming, each one as complex as the global connections that coalesced in our port city. I spent eighty to ninety hours a week at work. Once on a case, I couldn’t let it go. Worse than a dog with a bone. There were nights when I slept on the sofa in the coffee room because I stayed so long, it wasn’t worth going home.

My family noticed. I didn’t. When Marieke asked for a divorce. I had a dim understanding that all wasn’t well, but no clue how bad things were. And they were bad. We fought. A lot. Gaby couldn’t take it and ran away. The police didn’t do much. I searched for her and found her in some hell hole, strung out on heroin. I got her clean again, but she refused to speak to me for a long time. The short of it was, I had to get out of Antwerp, away from it all. And that’s how I ended up at the United Nations.

Not a story I am proud of, to be sure. But Gaby and I eventually made up. So there is little bit of a sweet ending.