Amsterdam’s seedy side: a rich source of literary inspiration
Daniel Pembrey grew up in Nottinghamshire beside Sherwood Forest. He studied history at Edinburgh University and received an MBA from INSEAD business school. He then spent over a decade working in America and more recently Luxembourg, coming to rest in Amsterdam and London — dividing his time now between them. He is the author of the Henk van der Pol detective series and several short thriller stories, and he contributes non-fiction articles to publications including The Financial Times, The Times and The Field. In order to write his latest novel, The Harbour Master, he spent several months living in the docklands area of East Amsterdam with an undercover team for the Dutch National Crime Squad.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Daniel describes how he came to be invited on an undercover operation in Amsterdam's Red Light District and how what he learned there found its way into his novel.
A couple of years ago, I was working on a feature article about the way the Dutch tackle human trafficking, and I got invited on an undercover operation with the Dutch National Crime Squad into the Amsterdam Red Light District.
In Holland, sex work is legal, so I assumed the Red Light District would be well regulated if not exactly above board … which is not the case. Most sex workers are there from elsewhere. One street in the Red Light District, Molensteeg, is known locally as Little Hungary because all the sex workers are from that source country.
Leading the operation that night was Henk Werson, Holland’s most senior anti-trafficking cop. A clear-eyed and shaven-headed police veteran with a background in psychology and the study of trauma, Henk looked Buddhist, or like a biker maybe. Both, even. 'I do sometimes need to hit the open road on my Yamaha 900 to clear my head,' he confided in me. Henk struck me as unusually reflective and thoughtful; he reminded me of Nicolas Freeling’s fictional policeman Van der Valk. He would become the inspiration for my lead detective character Henk van der Pol (I would give Van der Pol a BMW motorbike).
One night revealed many dark truths. There was the Hungarian sex worker’s cabin that we entered; the bruise on her leg and the talk of traffickers using physical violence less, preferring blackmail and psychological methods – 'better for business'.
There was the old adage follow the money, in a novel guise: the police’s ability to question anyone with over €1,000 on their person using tough money laundering laws. How pimps and traffickers increasingly make themselves scarce, preferring pick-up and drop-off points further afield – a five-star hotel beside Centraal Station, even. Safe houses whose locations could not be disclosed (given how determined traffickers are to recover their ‘investments’, one even posing as a newspaper reporter; the safe house in my novel I’d need to entirely fictionalise). A female police officer surprising me by remarking that sex workers felt most safe around a man carrying a gun, who they believed might protect them…
There was something else that made my experience that night uncomfortably tense: the discovery that British men are the most represented among foreign visitors to the Red Light District. 'We have a lot of people from France, Italy, Russia… but the UK is definitely number one in numbers,' commented Mariska Majoor, of the Prostitution Information Centre. Amsterdam has always been a popular destination popular for British stag parties.
But there may be another explanation for this. There may be more British people in the Dutch capital overall, given its strong feeling of familiarity. Both countries have a maritime history and a glorious, colonial past. Both have an often uneasy relationship between traditions and present-day challenges (from immigration to anxieties over waning influence overseas). London and Amsterdam became major trading, now trafficking, hubs.
Behind this popular destination lies an uncomfortably seedy business, and yet, when approached with a certain stoicism and wry sense of humour, it forms a rich and relevant source of literary inspiration.