Belgian Insp. Pieter Van In makes his U.S. debut in Pieter Aspe’s The Square of Revenge. The series has already spawned bestsellers in Europe.

Which of your many jobs has given you the most insight into people?

While working as a caretaker at the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruges, I had plenty of time to observe tourists and locals. Often I felt like a piece of furniture, a part of the chapel, which gave me the opportunity to watch and learn unobtrusively. I’ve encountered people from all over the world at the chapel.

Did your stint with the maritime police help you to write crime fiction?

Somewhat. I encountered only small-time criminals while working for the maritime police. Once I started writing about Inspector Van In, I got in touch with real criminals as a way of researching my books. I wanted to understand their situation, to empathize with them, so that every time I encountered a criminal, whatever the crime committed, I asked myself the question, “What if that ever happened to me?” or “What if I had the same childhood or education, what if I was in the same position? Would I become that criminal?” There is a delinquent in everyone, but it only comes out because of certain triggers. That fascinated me.

In The Square of Revenge, intruders break into a Bruges jewelry store and destroy jewelry by dissolving it. Where did you get this idea?

My criminal is motivated by a desire for vengeance. I had read about a chemical procedure while I was doing some research about the Middle Ages. During that period, the alchemists tried to create gold out of lead and other elements. Gold is symbolic—it represents God, richness, something superior. The creation of gold out of lead, the purification of lead, is a metaphor for how a human being can raise oneself above mediocrity, how a human being can aspire to be the best version of him or herself. So, destroying jewelry seemed a perfect means for revenge.

What are Americans’ biggest misconceptions about Belgium?

That Belgium doesn’t exist. Brussels, our capital, is often better known than our country itself. There also is a big difference between the Dutch part, Flanders, and the French part, Wallonia, that most people don’t understand. Belgians are what we call “bourgondisch.” It means that they enjoy life, including good food and a nice drink. We also have a café culture, so we often go for a drink in the nearest pub. In the end, I think Belgians, when it comes down to culture, are more like the Spanish, French, or Italian. In contrast to Van In, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian detectives are more cold and businesslike.