Tom Holt,
Flying Dutch
(St. Martin's Press, 1992;
Ace Books, 1993)

Julius Vanderdecker is in a dangerous line of work, so a life insurance policy with the prestigious House of Fugger seems like a good idea. But that policy, a casual investment at the time, now has the potential to topple governments and collapse world economies in a snap.

For Vanderdecker, a Dutch sea captain, purchased his policy somewhere in the vicinity of 1588. Through a stroke of good, if ill-smelling, fortune, he still hasn't died. Because of the terms of the policy -- which include a 50 percent compound annually after the policyholder's 75th birthday -- that policy is now worth more money than the world currently contains. If it's ever cashed in, that's it for Wall Street, the value of the dollar, pound and yen, and just about every other financial marker you can calculate.

It's upon this fiscal initiative that British humorist Tom Holt builds the plot of Flying Dutch, one of his best legend-based novels (and one of the few ever to be made available to U.S. book buyers).

Vanderdecker is still out there, sailing on his good ship Verdomde (Dutch for Damned) with his immortal, still indignant crew. Popularly known as The Flying Dutchman, Vanderdecker really wants to die already (although not as badly as crewman Sebastian, who regularly throws himself from the crow's nest with unflagging optimism). But he'll settle for a few good pints and an extremely effective deodorant.

For the real curse of immortality isn't just living a really long time. The alchemist's elixir which gave Vanderdecker and his crew unending life also altered their body chemistry such that they smell Really Bad. This isn't just a noxious whiff which quickly passes; this is the sort of odor that seeps into the surroundings and causes birds to fall from the sky. It fades only briefly, once every seven years, at which time the crew takes a rapid shore leave and stocks up on the things needed to keep them busy for the next seven years. (For some crewmen, who aren't extremely bright, a single jigsaw puzzle would suffice.)

Enter Jane Doland, a British accountant who stumbles upon the Vanderdecker policy and, because she has no sense of smell, is assigned the task of finding Vanderdecker and convincing him to cash in the policy at a reasonable rate. Enter Juan de Montalban, the alchemist who began Vanderdecker's woes and who, it seems, is also still alive, working in Scotland and, apparently, odor free. And enter Danny Bennett, Holt's reoccurring journalist who sees conspiracy at every turn and can tie the Milk Marketing Board quite neatly into every shady deal in history.

And let's not forget about the cat.

Holt is a literary comedian who easily rivals Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett in the British humor vein although, sadly, he isn't as easy to find in the U.S. Flying Dutch -- which was released in America but is still hard to find -- is a delicious book which will have readers laughing aloud as they rush to turn the pages and smiling long after the book is done. This is one well worth saving and reading over and over again -- you'll laugh every time.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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