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.