Inspired by Wagner's opera, The Flying Dutchman, the novel asserts that the famous Dutchman and his crew were not, in fact, cursed by the Devil, but were instead the victim of a flawed alchemical experiment which made them immortal, but, as a side effect, gave them a horrible, unbearable stench. Every seven years, the stench wears off, briefly, and the crew can land and reprovision. However, modern technology is catching up with the Dutchman, and compound interest on his ancient life-insurance policy threatens the entire world's economy.
While the ship’s crew includes twenty members, all except for Captain Julius Vanderdecker, are flat characters of little intelligence used only for comedic effect. Vanderdecker is the Python-esqe sane man in the insane world of his ship. His one goal is to find a cure to “the Stench” or die trying.
Jane is the heroine of the book, a lowly and put-upon accountant. She is the modern working woman trying to survive in the corporate world. She accidentally stumbles on to the Vanderdecker File, but does not know what it means. Meanwhile, Vanderdecker and Jane meet and pass each other repeatedly without making a connection. Finally, Jane’s peculiar flaw of having no sense of smell recommends her to the upper echelons of her office, and she is given the job of straightening out the Vanderdecker matter.
Vanderdecker took out an insurance policy before he took off on his last voyage, and the bank is still obligated to pay out on the policy at the compounded interest rate should he ever die. However, he never named an heir, and the bank hopes to get Vanderdecker to sign the policy over to them. If the policy is not signed over and the immortal captain should find something to kill him, the international banking institutions around the world would fall attempting to pay the money owed. Jane is the only one to ever contact Vanderdecker, and now she needs to find him again to clear up the matter of his policy.
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