The Magazine

Dutch Treat

From the November 17, 2003 issue: Why mystery fans need to read Nicolas Freeling.

Nov 17, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 10 • By JON L. BREEN
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THE MYSTERY WRITER Nicolas Freeling made a dreadful commercial decision--and a dubious artistic one--when he killed off his popular detective, Amsterdam police inspector Piet Van der Valk. But is that the complete explanation for why one of the most gifted and original writers of crime fiction has been so forgotten by critics? Even the obituaries after his death this summer at age seventy-six were the kind that finds it more surprising that the man had still been alive than that he had just died.

Freeling produced challenging and distinctive crime fiction for forty years. But after nods to his early mysteries starring Van der Valk--a Mystery Writers of America Edgar, a French Grand prix du roman policier, and some recognition from the Crime Writers Association of Great Britain--the award-givers turned their backs. MWA's Grand Master and CWA's Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement were denied him. Of several lists of the hundred greatest crime novels, only H.R.F. Keating's "Crime & Mystery: The 100 Best Books" (1987) found room for him--and that grudgingly. There is no Freeling companion, no book-length biography, and no critical study. A mystery bookseller told me sales of Freeling's books come about as frequently as leap years.

Few would have predicted such a fate in the 1960s. While working as a cook in an Amsterdam restaurant, the English-born Freeling was accused of stealing food and briefly jailed. During this encounter with the Dutch criminal-justice system, he was interrogated by a detective--and thereby discovered the model for his own Van der Valk. From his first appearance in "Love in Amsterdam" (1962) to his demise in "Auprès de ma Blonde" (1972), the Dutch policeman's cases filled eleven books.

Freeling was contemptuous of typical mystery fiction, and his books often involve nonstandard detective-story plotting. But they are not anti-detective stories: The problems the author sets, the detective solves. He wrote what is now called the "literary thriller"--although that has become a nearly meaningless term these days, since it became its own commercial category. Not surprisingly, given his earlier career, Freeling is among the most food-obsessed of mystery writers (although he stops short of including recipes, which Rex Stout did in the Nero Wolfe novel "Too Many Cooks"). In his emphasis on setting the scene, attention to domestic detail, and favoring of verbal conflict and plot movement over explicit violence and physical action, Freeling has more in common with the cozy writers than most in the police-procedural school. His prose can be annoyingly eccentric at times, but more often evocative and eloquent.

Like the admitted model, Georges Simenon's Maigret, Freeling's Van der Valk takes an unconventional approach to police work, exhibits lone-wolf tendencies, is happily married, and is more interested in character than forensics. Van der Valk's blunt speaking style, along with a seeming contempt for Dutch Calvinist values of conformity, respectability, civility, and order, have hurt his police career, but he is valued for his ability to crack unusual cases, especially those that exploit his linguistic ability and understanding of various European cultures. The Dutch sleuth's cases, whydunits as much as whodunits, often explore his relationship with the criminal, played out in a series of encounters that resemble social chats more than cat and mouse.

FOR A BIG-CITY POLICEMAN, Van der Valk is well traveled: Belgium, France, Austria, Germany, Spain, Ireland. Freeling, who lived most of his life on the continent, had a sharp eye for the quirks and oddities of the various nationalities, and he was really more a European writer than a British one. (Most of his rare sports allusions, for example, are to bicycle racing--something you couldn't get the British to follow even if you offered them free beer.)

The Van der Valk novels avoid any set formula. Julian Symons, who celebrated serious studies of criminal psychology, preferred "Criminal Conversation" (1965), in which Van der Valk investigates a doctor suspected of murdering a blackmailer. Keating and the CWA judges gave their nod to "Question of Loyalty" (1963), tracing the double life of a murder victim involved in the smuggling of butter from Holland into Belgium. In both these books, Van der Valk takes the stage at the end to explain the crime. American readers, including the Edgar judges, preferred the heightened suspense and physical action (including the theft of a helicopter from a skiing competition and the serious wounding that would change the course of Van der Valk's career) of "The King of the Rainy Country" (1966). Puzzle-novel traditionalists Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor appreciated "Strike Out Where Not Applicable" (1967), with a wider range of suspects and the classic situation of a murder victim apparently kicked by a horse.

My own favorite is "Double Barrel" (1969), about Van der Valk's undercover investigation of a rash of anonymous letters in a northeast Holland boomtown. He pays repeated friendly visits to the chief suspect, a supposed Jewish refugee. That the man is actually a notorious Nazi is so clearly foreshadowed, few readers will be surprised, but Van der Valk's ethical pondering over whether to turn him in is deftly handled. "The Lovely Ladies" (1971) has an ending more pretentious than profound and may be the worst of the Van der Valks. But even this book is memorable for his sexual encounter with a suspect (unconvincing) and the scene where he confesses, wisely or not, to his wife Arlette (painfully believable).

IN THE EARLY 1970S, British television extended Van der Valk's fame beyond the printed page, but Freeling couldn't stand prosperity. In "Auprès de ma Blonde," he struck down Van der Valk much more irrevocably than Conan Doyle disposed of Sherlock Holmes. Now working in the Hague and contemplating retirement to a cottage in France, Van der Valk goes for a walk and is shot from a passing car before the novel's halfway point.

Arlette, who ultimately solves and avenges her husband's murder, would briefly star in her own series of mystery novels. In "The Widow" (1979), now remarried and living in Strasbourg, Arlette opens an advice service, becoming a combination mobile Dear Abby and private eye, but she can't carry a book as her husband did, and the English sociologist Arthur Davidson is not engaging in the supportive-spouse role. After one more novel, Freeling wisely abandoned the series. Van der Valk himself would return for a final bow in "Sand Castles" (1989), a case before his death rather than a resurrection.

SYMONS BELIEVED THAT Freeling "lost his way as a writer" when he killed Van der Valk. Certainly Freeling's next detective--Henri Castang, a French policeman--was never as vivid or interesting a character, nor was Castang's wife, former Czech gymnast Vera, a match for Arlette. First appearing in A Dressing of Diamond" (1974), Castang ended his career (in retirement rather than death) in "A Dwarf Kingdom" (1996).

But some of Freeling's best work came in three late books without any of his continuing characters. "A City Solitary" (1985) and "One More River" (1998) concern expatriate English novelists who resemble their creator. In the former, Walter Forrestier, subject of a home-invasion robbery, is reluctant to help the police and winds up collaborating with the criminal. "One More River" is ostensibly a novel left behind by the late John Charles, who receives threats to his life from an unknown source. The author's-notebook format allows for tangents, artful disorganization, and shifts between first and third person. "Some Day Tomorrow" (1999), also calculatedly random and discursive, continues Freeling's exegesis on the Dutch national character, along with learned digressions on literary, biological, medical, geographical, social, and culinary topics, through the story of a retired Dutch botanist suspected of killing a teenage girl.

How can we account for Freeling's estrangement from the crime fiction establishment? H.R.F. Keating is repelled by his sense of superiority, finding him "infuriatingly knowing," with passages of untranslated French and obscure allusions. It's true that Freeling's literary, artistic, musical, and cinematic references are sometimes arcane, but not all readers are bothered by such authorial showboating. Dorothy L. Sayers had the same habit--to the point of having her two main characters propose marriage to each other in Latin.

FREELING'S PUBLISHED ATTITUDES to the field, both in his novels and critical writing, may have boiled more blood than his show of erudition. He heaped disdain on such characters as Chesterton's Father Brown, Stout's Nero Wolfe, Christie's Hercule Poirot, and Gardner's Perry Mason, and he was more scathing in his dismissal of bread-and-butter mystery fiction than any major figure since Raymond Chandler. Freeling viewed himself as a savior of the form, one who would bring quality of style, theme, and social commentary to a debased genre.

In "Criminal Convictions: Errant Essays on Perpetrators of Literary License" (1994), Freeling argues for the extension of crime fiction into the literary mainstream, believing virtually all great fiction is crime fiction. Of the eight writers he discusses, four are generally considered outside the genre (Stendhal, Dickens, Conrad, Kipling) and four within (Doyle, Chandler, Sayers, Simenon). For the latter group, his approval is only partial. He likes Sherlock Holmes but blames the sleuth's success for the later emergence of racist vigilantes like Bulldog Drummond. "Gaudy Night" is virtually the only Sayers novel he deems successful. Even Maigret is admired only for his earliest cases. In discussing Chandler (and finding only his first four novels praiseworthy), he dismisses Dashiell Hammett as a poor writer. Along the way, Freeling manages swipes at Anthony Berkeley, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Margery Allingham, while faintly praising Ross Macdonald.

THEN THERE IS THE MATTER of Freeling's political views, which some critics, especially of the Castang novels, have found intrusive. His left-liberal European socialist perspective, including a fuzzy view of crime and punishment, may grate on conservative readers. In "The Lovely Ladies," Freeling summarizes his ambivalent views on the police: "A policeman has a good trade put to poor use, like a painter commanded to put a coat of glossy enamel over rusty corrugated iron, shrugging, and doing as he is told." He assumes that police generally are corrupt, brutal, and incompetent; that capital punishment is barbaric and prisons an abomination. He compares crime with art in a passage from "Criminal Convictions" unlikely to cheer victims and prosecutors: "Crime is the expression of longing and losing, and what else is our poetry, our music? We seek and do not find; upon this harsh condition we build our frustrations, our self-hatreds. The nature of crime is also the nature of art."

But it isn't that simple, even to Freeling. Some of his most sweeping statements of European leftist views come from the mouth of Walter Forrestier in "A City Solitary." But, in light of the way the novel ends, can we assume Freeling really believes all the views he gives Walter? The novel could be read as showing up the barrenness of the left in its seeming denial of evil. Sometimes Freeling, more independent thinker than ideologue, comes across more centrist than leftist. In "A City Solitary" he writes: "The only difference between left- and right-wing governments was that the left did slightly sillier things, but with slightly better intentions."

Meanwhile, the Van der Valk and Castang series presents a continuing tribute to marriage. Husband and wife relationships are at the heart of his work--he depicts good marriages and bad, and in the bad ones, the husband is generally at fault. Often his protagonists' wives seem better than they deserve. In his critical writing, he celebrates Cissy Chandler as a key to her husband Raymond's success. In "One More River," novelist John Charles considers the marriage of Samuel Pepys. Mrs. Pepys "is a sweet woman, true, good, honest." In Pepys's diary passages after she discovers his infidelity, "There are few pages, I think, in which naked suffering is so baldly set down. 'Poor wretch,' he says, of both women. He realizes that he loves both, and is in hideous torment. He is too honest to say it of himself." Eventually Charles comes to realize how he drove away his own wife and in the last entries in his notebook wants her back.

ALL OF THIS IS FASCINATING, all of this is great reading--and nearly all of this is forgotten. Rewarding even when most annoying, Freeling deserves a serious revival.

A regular writer on mystery fiction for The Weekly Standard, Jon L. Breen is the winner of two Edgar awards.