Typecast essay: Incorrigible.

This is not how I usually transport my typewriters!

KATLA FAQ: Why does Katla ride a Vespa motor scooter?

Although riding a beat-up old Vespa sounds incongruous for an assassin like Katla, her choice of urban transportation is deliberate.


Vespas of the Amsterdam Vespa Club parked on the Nieuwmarkt.

Vespas have been designed with the urban commuter in mind, and specifically the commuters of Europe’s most congested cities. While you won’t see many scooters in American cities, with their wide roads that seemed to be made for automobiles, most European inner cities were built when people either walked or rode horses, with a few carriages for the wealthy. Amsterdam is no exception, driving a car in the inner city requires patience and nerves of steel. The canals of the city were not just to enhance the city’s beauty, but they serve as waterways. In the old days, ships would unload their cargo in the harbour into smaller vessels that would transport the goods by water to the warehouses.

Amsterdam roads are narrow with steep bridges and high kerbs and/or metal posts everywhere, making any kind of four-wheeled transport daunting. Even locals avoid driving through Amsterdam, preferring public transport, bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles. Which makes Katla’s choice for a Vespa motor scooter a lot more practical than you’d think.

Vespas are pretty much invisible in Amsterdam, because they are ubiquitous. The older vintage Vespas are rare, and the modern sleek Vespas are numerous but their value makes them prone to theft. It’s mainly the P/PX 150/200 Vespas and their little moped brother, the PK50, that are everywhere. And when they are dented and primer-spotted, like Katla’s, they become unwanted and invisible, while still providing fast urban transport.

Katla rides other motorcycles as well. Other vehicles she uses on the job are Yamaha XT350 motorcycles, which might seem as underpowered as her Vespa, but their motocross heritage makes them excellent transport in a city filled with potholes and speed bumps, while light enough to use as a trial bike and climb stairs and pedestrian bridges. In the hands of an experience rider like Katla, they are the fastest transport through the city. Still, they have a few drawbacks. For one, they’re noisier and more obtrusive than a Vespa, and their aggressive appearance makes riding pedestrian areas and bicycle paths less acceptable.

Katla being a tinkerer, her Vespa also has a souped-up engine and better brakes and suspension, as well as a cut-off switch in the glove box, but its dented silver body makes it unattractive and unobtrusive, whether it’s parked in the rundown sections of the city like Osdorp or Geuzenveld, or the posh areas like Zuid or Museumbuurt. The simple two-stroke engines makes the older Vespas easy to maintain and repair and the bulbous covers over the engine keep the noise down.

Many Vespa riders enjoy individualising their scooters with an assortment of aftermarket additions, but Katla keeps her Vespa unadorned to avoid making it stand it out. She also has a score of domestic and foreign license plates to make her Vespa difficult to track. Another advantage of the Vespa’s friendly appearance that riding the Italian scooter on Amsterdam’s bicycle paths draws less attention. Most people won’t be able to discern between the P150/200 motor scooter and the PK50 moped version, which is almost the same size.

Another advantage of the Vespa is the manoeuvrability: the extremely short wheelbase of the Vespa allows the scooter to make U-turns on even the smallest roads, plus with the weight packed mainly on the rear most riders can lift the front wheel and turn the Vespa on a dime.

Of course the Vespa has disadvantages, like radius and stability.

The tiny fuel tank under the saddle hold seven litres of fuel, with two litres being the reserve. However, even souped-up Vespas will do fifty-six miles per gallon or twenty four kilometers per litre, so you can ride a cool hundred-and-fifty kilometers before you need to visit the gas station. And in European cities, a filling station is rarely more than five kilometers away. If you want to extend your radius, there are auxiliary tanks that will double your radius, or you can carry extra fuel in a jerry can, although I haven’t seen anyone to that even in the mountains of Italy.

Stability is another factor. With the weight mainly on the rear, hard braking on a Vespa can be an adventure. Add to that the mediocre suspension and the short wheelbase and you’ll understand that you won’t want to take a Vespa up to higher than factory speeds without some modifications. And even with quality tyres, better suspension and a souped up engine, the Vespa will never be as stable as an ordinary motorcycle.

Even so, for an assassin who wants urban transport that will be invisible everywhere and pass effortlessly through the most congested cities in the world, the scooter is second to none.

WRITING: Doing Research…

Well, writing crime fiction is no picknick, especially if you try to stick as close as possible to reality and your protagonist is a free-lance assassin, but it got easier after I killed my first target and I’m still improving.

Apart from that I visited experts on the maintenance of saxophones, caring for macaws and repairing diesel engines; went to a shooting club to fire different handguns to get a feel for them; befriended hackers to explain to me how they scaled firewalls and extracted information from hospitals, police files and hotel registries; learned how to open locks with simple lockpicks; visited an institute for the blind, learned braille and walked around with my eyes taped shut for an entire day; smoked lots of doobie with Rastafarians; read countless books on obscure topics that might have a bearing on whatever I’m inclined to write about; befriended musicians so I could sit in on sessions; learned how to pick pockets; accompanied the police when they went to haul in a ‘water corpse’; rode motorcycles and Vespa motorscooters; and some other things I vowed to keep secret…