Sunday, September 21, 2014

Guest Blogger: David Swatling––Bicycle Fishing in Amsterdam

Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings.  We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places.  We’re pleased to have with us today David Swatling who grew up in New York and moved to Amsterdam in 1985. David produced arts & culture documentaries for Radio Netherlands, winning numerous international awards. His debut suspense novel Calvin’s Head is published by Bold Strokes Books. To learn more about David, check out his website at

Welcome, David.

“This city is murder,” said posters for the 1988 Dutch thriller Amsterdamned. A serial killer uses the canal system to stalk his prey. After a late-night sequence featuring the murder of a prostitute, the scene shifts to one of those ubiquitous boatloads of visitors touring the canals on a sunny morning. As they pass under a low bridge, the hanging victim is dragged along the glass windows above the screaming tourists until it falls in amidst them. Great stuff! 

Canal Noir

I had moved to Amsterdam three years earlier and loved the city, especially the charming tree-lined canals. There’s nothing more relaxing than a leisurely canal-side walk. I consider a certain bench around the corner from my apartment an annex to my office, a perfect spot to read or write. Now that I spend the summer half of the year in the States, I miss the canals more than anything else and look forward to returning to them in the autumn.

Canal Office

The complex 100-kilometer network of canals is part of why Amsterdam is called the Venice of the North. But like its Italian counterpart, there is another side, a darker side to the waterways. Remember Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now? But it’s not a dangerous psychopath that lurks beneath the surface, such as the one portrayed in Amsterdamned. It’s bicycles.

According to the city’s Water Authority, between 12,000 and 15,000 bikes are fished out of the canals every year. Those responsible for dredging the canals on a regular basis call it bicycle fishing. If not securely locked to a bike rack, sometimes they’re blown into the water by strong winds. But most end up in the canals as a result of theft or vandalism. Even if in salvageable condition, all the drowned bikes are relegated to a scrap metal facility. Other large objects also end up in canals, including an average of about 35 cars per year, but bicycles are far and away the dredgers’ most common catch.

Bikes on Canal

The city of Amsterdam employs four full-time professional divers to deal with more serious incidents. They estimate 100 people fall into the canals each year, often requiring assistance to get out due to the very steep banks. Many are attributed to drunken men losing their balance as they urinate into the canals late at night, a misdemeanor that I’m reluctant to admit I once plead guilty – fortunately without calamitous consequences. But occasionally there are more grisly discoveries. In the spring of 2009, the body of an Irish drug dealer was found dismembered and stuffed into a suitcase that had been dumped into a canal. The alleged murderers currently face extradition proceedings to be brought to trial in the Netherlands.

And perhaps Amsterdam is seeing an inevitable renaissance as a locale for crime fiction authors. Beginning in the mid-70s, Janwillem van de Wetering wrote a series of Amsterdam mysteries in both Dutch and English (and reissued since his death in 2008 by Soho Crime), featuring a pair of Dutch homicide detectives. But in recent months British publishers have launched two new crime series set in the Dutch city. British author David Hewson’s The House of Dolls is a gritty police procedural featuring a former police detective who lives on a canal houseboat. The other, originally published in Dutch, is Lonely Graves by Britta Bolt, a German-South African writing team. It begins when a young Moroccan immigrant’s body is found – you guessed it – in a canal.

Misty Canal

Not surprisingly, both books feature cover artwork of the Amsterdam canals. It might be interesting to note that when presented with possible cover art for my own suspense novel set in Amsterdam, most of the designs also included canal scenes. But although an important location in the book is an unusual canal-house, I opted for a different look. The story takes place on the outskirts of the city and I felt the picturesque canals might give the wrong impression when they are so emblematic of the Amsterdam most people recognize. But I can’t imagine the city’s Office of Tourism will be particularly pleased if the canals begin to acquire a new reputation as crime scene locations.  

Guest Blogger David Swatling—Sunday


  1. Welcome, David! We'll know that Amsterdam is in REAL trouble when the body 'catch' is greater than the car 'catch.' If it ever surpasses the bicycle 'catch,' we'll know that either bicycles have disappeared from the face of the world or that the end is nigh... Thanks for writing!

  2. Well done, David! To show you where my head is, when I first read the title, I made a mistake akin to thinking that "octopus fishing" involves someone manipulating eight rods and reels. How does he do it? I wondered. :) Thanks for educating me.

  3. I couldn't be more proud of you DVD! Now go to the top!