Van der Valk is dispatched to the small town of Zwinderen in the north-east of Holland, where a series of poison pen letters have been sent to residents and two women have committed suicide. The local police are (of course) baffled.
Freeling’s Amsterdam inspector is a close cousin of Simenon’s Maigret. Both detectives like to take a sideways approach to the crimes they are investigating; they are more likely to drink a beer with a suspect than grill him in a cell. Van der Valk is sardonic and provocative; self-deprecating and aware of his own limitations – a self-confessed ‘clot in a ready-made suit’, except that he isn’t. Far more than Maigret, he is analytical, prone to bouts of abstract thinking. In this, the fourth Van der Valk novel, Freeling switches to the first person and this gives him free rein to the reflect the cerebral aspect of his detective’s nature.
Van der Valk is posted to Zwinderen, armed with a dossier about the town, for good reason. Freeling was an English writer living in the Netherlands, and taking his protagonist out of his normal milieu allows him to use him as a mouthpiece for his own observations of Dutch life. And boy, does he put the boot in. Zwinderen is portrayed as bureaucratic, prying, repressed and hypocritical. It is a town in the midst of economic re-birth; new industries have brought new residents, housed in shiny new blocks of flats; but the Calvinist Dutch mentality remains, or at least the appearance of it. Perusing the town’s court records, Van der Valk is unsurprised by the cases of incest (‘never quite unknown in these ingrown inter-married districts’), but there is, he finds:
Rather too much rape, indecent exposure, dissemination of pornography, obscene dancing in cafés, underhand prostitution – underneath all the drum-beating and bell-ringing on Sundays, there was a sort of sexy itch.
And this is Freeling’s real subject: an almost sociological dissection of small-town Dutch life. In an earlier novel, Because of the Cats (1963), Freeling casts a similar eye over the booming new town of Bloemendaal aan Zee, the ‘pride of Dutch building and planning’, where there residents lavish money on their swish modern homes; where ‘the drunks are polite. Fights in cafés are unknown and breaking-and-entering is a rarity.’ And yet ‘the younger generation find it dead . . . and the many of their elders, secretly, agree.’ The key word here is ‘secretly’, for, just as in Zwinderen, the true religion is conformity.[*]
And in order to explore this aspect of Dutch life, Freeling chooses the perfect crime: blackmail – the threat of exposure. Van der Valk quickly finds that it is hard to get his hands on the letters residents have received. Most recipients, ashamed of the contents, have destroyed them at the first opportunity. It is not clear how many people have received the letters, as nobody wishes to expose their activities to scrutiny by involving the police. Nor is it even clear that the contents of the letters are true – perhaps the writer is taking a scattergun approach, hinting at unsavoury activities knowing that the recipient is likely guilty of something. There is thus a pervading atmosphere of suspicion: nobody knows who has been writing the letters; nobody knows who has received them; nobody knows who is guilty of what. It’s Kafka in the guise of detective fiction.
The chief suspect is Besançon, an aging German engineer, believed to be a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. Besançon translates documents for a local firm from which a sophisticated listening device has gone missing, but this is not the real reason he is a suspect. Rather, it is because in a town where no one closes their curtains for fear that their neighbours will think they are up to no good, Besançon lives behind a high wall. Very much as Maigret would, Van der Valk befriends him and their conversations range over a variety of lofty subjects, the detective eventually finding himself (quite willingly) under the scrutiny of the suspect: “You have acquired a professionalism, a competence – the usual police skills, but you lack the police mentality,” Besançon tells him. Nevertheless, the old man insists, “You will clear this up, all right. It would not surprise me if you cleared up a lot of other things too, that have for long remained obscure.”
And, naturally, Van der Valk does clear things up. But while the novel kowtows to the generic requirement for resolution and the provision of a twist (which is unforgivably given away by both the strap line on the Penguin edition and the blurb on the back), these elements are far from being the most interesting thing about the book. Like Simenon, Freeling is more interested in his novels’ characters than in the crimes they may or may not have committed. The poison pen letters are a mere MacGuffin to provide Van der Valk with a pretext to delve under the skirts of Zwinderen.
Indeed, the most revealing scene in the book occurs towards the end when Van der Valk goes ‘prowling’ around the town after dark, armed with binoculars, disguised in baggy clothes. He trains his sights on a window in a block of flats, ‘the very conventional living room of an unmarried woman living alone . . . A calvinist interior, bare, impersonal, dull. No books to be seen, no frivolities.’ But the occupant is floating around in a negligee, a cigarette in her mouth, her face luridly painted.
Watching a person through binoculars – even if that person is simply cleaning his teeth under the kitchen tap – creates a strong emotion. You are ashamed and excited . . . With binoculars you are the submarine commander, the assassin, the preacher in the pulpit. God. As well as, always, the pornographer. A strong hot emotion.
Van der Valk climbs a staircase in a deserted building and stubs his elbow, straining to get a better view.
Then I saw it was a seduction scene. A solitary seduction. I understood that in five minutes she would be making love to herself . . . Something villainous happened to me at that moment. I wanted to see her.
Then, as he contemplates climbing onto the roof, he is disturbed by a beat cop, caught in the act of committing the very crime he has been investigating. But such actions, forbidden to the private citizen, are easily explained by an officer of the law, especially an inspector from the big city.
Double Barrel, then, is something of a masterpiece. The writing, particularly in its depiction and observations of the provincial setting, is strong, nigh on flawless. Van der Valk is entertaining company and the secondary characters – especially the detective’s feisty wife, Arlette – are skilfully drawn. Finally, there is that dark, ambiguous tone – hinting at the idea that we are all, in some way, as guilty as one another – and it is this that raises the novel way above the expectations of the genre.
* * * * *
First published by Victor Gollancz in 1964. Penguin edition, 1967.
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014