Nicholas Freeling – William Shaw
These days a lot of people look blank when you say the name Nicholas Freeling. Hum the first few bars of “Eye Level” by the Simon Park Orchestra, the theme tune to the Van der Valk TV series, and you might get a flicker of recognition. I discovered green-spines Nicholas Freelings among my parents bookshelves in the early 70s my early teens and read everything they had. The TV series was nothing on the books, I promise you.
Freeling’s books cling on as Bloomsbury reprints, but at the time they marked a change in British attitudes to the outside world. These days , whether it’s Barbara Nadel’s Turkey, Michael Ridpath’s Iceland, or Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana, we are used to crime novels with well-stamped passports. (I’m just reading David Hewson’s gripping The House of Dolls now, like the Van Der Valk series, set in Amsterdam).
But in the late 60s and early 70s, British thrillers visited foreign countries principally to mock them and complain about the food. London-born Freeling’s books were different. They were soaked in European culture. It’s almost impossible to imagine how sophisticated that felt back then.
In the opening paragraph of Tsing-Boum, Van Der Valk is interrupted from eating aubergines, “done in the oven with a cheesy top layer” by his French wife Arlette. Aubergines? In Britain in 1969, when it was written, who even knew what an aubergine looked like, let alone tasted ?
(Actually the food in Freeling books is always good; before becoming a writer, he had been a chef. His desire to write thrillers was born when he was imprisoned for three weeks for stealing veal from a Dutch restaurant he worked in. Deciding to emulate his hero, Maigret, he turned one of the police who arrested him into the erudite Van der Valk).
But it’s way more than food. This wasn’t a gushing, sunlit, Peter Mayle-style, I’ve-been-there-on-my-holidays-type look at European culture. This was richly nuanced. The dark stuff was there too; in Because of The Cats, for example, he was exploring the evils of the Dutch nouveau riches or exploring the animosity between the Dutch and the Belgians in Guns Before Butter. These books were dripping in the cultural detail of a world that had just started to unfold to us British.
Guns Before Butter? That’s the other thing. The titles were fantastic too, albeit in a hit and miss way. My favourite was King of The Rainy Country, a quote from a hallucinatory poem by Baudelaire. The title has almost nothing to do with the book, of course.
By today’s standard’s that’s also maybe why Freeling has failed to win a modern audience. Not only is the foreign-ness of Europe diminishing, but the books amble as a slowly as a boulevardier in the Herengracht. Like the titles, they are bizarrely idiosyncratic. The plots often barely hold together. But they should be judged on their own remarkable merits.
After perversely killing of Van Der Valk at the height of his polarity, Freeling invented a French detective, Henri Castang, and even did a few books in which Van der Valk’s podgy wife Arlette (a brilliant creation in her own right) attempts to solve crimes. But the classics are his Van Der Valk novels. If there is such a thing as a genuinely European thriller, Freeling defined what it could be long before anyone else.