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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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.