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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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.