Strike Out Where Not Applicable / Nicolas Freeling

003aStrike Out Where Not Applicable finds Van der Valk newly installed as Commissioner of Police in the provincial town of Lisse, centre of the tulip growing region. The countryside is, ‘Nothing to look at. Flat like all of Holland.’ And the town?

Walls white; painted, plastered, roughcast. Metal window-frames painted grey. Huge windows washed and polished every day. Nothing dirty or tumbledown, nothing disorderly, vexatious or offensive. The world is neat, prim, and unspeakably tidied.

A place entirely mundane, perfect for Freeling to indulge his favourite pastime of satirising small-town Dutch society.

There is a crime, yes, – a local restaurant owner has been killed by a blow to the head after falling from his horse – but neither Freeling nor Van der Valk seem much interested in solving it. Nothing much happens in this connection for more than two-thirds of the book. Instead (and much more interestingly), the crime is simply a pretext for the Van der Valk to acquaint himself the town’s various characters.

The ‘investigation’ centres around the manège – the riding school – where the fatal incident has occurred. Of course, Freeling has chosen this location quite deliberately as a magnet for the most upwardly-mobile and affected of the town’s residents. There is the Marguerite, the sexy, but slightly mannish wife of the deceased, who seems to have an intriguingly close relationship with the restaurant’s manageress, Saskia. There is Rob, an amiable former cycling champion and his saucy wife, Janine, like Van der Valk’s wife Arlette, an outsider by virtue of being French. There is Francis, the owner of the manège, who is partial to a bit of light S&M and likes reading dirty books (the literary kind, of course). Finally, a local painter of portraits and horses, the arrogant and solitary Dickie Six. To all of these a vague motive for murder might be ascribed (blackmail, jealousy, amour fou), but the author is not really interested in that – instead what he presents is a series of amusing and crisply observed pen portraits. Freeling has an unerring eye for the nuances of human behaviour and he describes them wittily and unfussily.

He is similarly skilled and economical in his depiction of the novel’s locations, such as the:

Solid, old-fashioned meeting-places . . . unchanged for a hundred years – heavy and ornate mahogany, plush-upholstered [with] great massive plated monogrammed ashtrays. Places where hobbly old waiters brought quiet elderly gentlemen games of dominoes or chess. No billiard tables, but music at night made by a trio of elderly flatbreasted virgins in dowdy black velvet . . . where you got coffee in heavy scratched little pots, and a glass of water with it.

While Van der Valk – like their elderly habitués – might wish to linger in such places, this is a detective novel and there remains a case to be solved. Thus, with around forty pages to go, Van der Valk organises his minions into a surveillance squad. As in Double Barrel, there is a certain irony in placing characters so obsessed with appearance and comme il faut under observation – it is only what they already do to each other. Even now, however, Van der Valk’s efforts at actual police work seem half-hearted (he would much rather be cosying up to a suspect with a glass of wine). When one of his underlings asks him what they are looking for, he replies wearily, ‘Nobody knows.’

Van der Valk tasks himself with tailing the Dickie Six. It is an easy task because for days the painter walks around absorbed in his own thoughts, observing his surroundings, ‘storing himself up to the brim, soaking himself to saturation.’

Later on [Six] would distil, but first came the process of fermentation, during which impurities and irrelevances scummed up and heaved and turned into the thick crust of rubbish that the winegrowers all ‘the hat’, while the sediment sank, and the turbid, unattractive liquid clarified, and the sugar grew wings as it turned into alcohol. The analogy amused Van der Valk.

Of course it does, because it is an analogy not just between painting and winemaking, but with the process of detective work (and that of writing or reading a detective novel) – the gathering and sifting of irrelevant details before the dénouement rises to the top. Except that in Strike Out Where Not Applicable, as in Freeling’s other novels, it is not the resolution which gives greatest satisfaction, but the process of fermentation.

* * * * *

First published by Victor Gollancz, 1967. (Hideous) Penguin edition 1985.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

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Double Barrel / Nicolas Freeling

Double BarrelVan 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

[*] In this respect both novels have something in common with the depiction of the town of Sneek in Simenon’s The Murderer of 1938.