Amsterdam is the story of a euthanasia pact between two friends, a composer and a newspaper editor, whose relationship spins into disaster.
The book begins with the funeral of artist Molly Lane. Guests at the funeral include British Foreign Secretary Julian Garmony, newspaper editor Vernon Halliday, and composer Clive Linley. The three share certain attributes: each has a very high opinion of himself, each was at some time Molly's lover, and each regards the dead woman's husband, George, with a mixture of amusement and contempt.
Clive and Vernon muse upon Molly's death. It seems she had some kind of rapid-onset brain disease (not specified) that left her helpless and mad. Neither man can understand her attraction to Julian Garmony, the right-wing Foreign Secretary who is about to challenge his party's leadership.
Clive returns home to continue work on a symphony he has been commissioned to write for the forthcoming millennium. Much of the work is complete, save the crucial signature melody. He resolves to go walking in the Lake District, as this tends to inspire him.
Brel worked on the song at his house overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the house he shared with Sylvie Rivet, a publicist for Philips; a place she had introduced him to in 1960. "It was the ideal place for him to create, and to indulge his passion for boats and planes. One morning at six o'clock he read the words of Amsterdam to Fernand, a restaurateur who was about to set off fishing for scorpion fish and conger eels for the bouillabaisse. Overcome, Fernand broke out in sobs and cut open some sea urchins to help control his emotion."