From his very first novel, Love in Amsterdam, and continuing throughout his career, Nicolas Freeling’s dual concerns with character and society dominated his work. He obviously enjoyed the personalities he created: Piet Van der Valk and Arlette Van der Valk and Henri Castang and Vera Castang, as well as the people who surround them. The verisimilitude of those characters has been underscored by Freeling’s strong sense of place; his attention to details of personality and setting ultimately define his concern—the conflicts between the individual and modern bureaucracy, clashes among social castes, contrasts among national types, and the social structures that allow, even encourage, the committing of crime. Freeling’s interest in his characters required that he allow them to grow and change, and those changes, joined with the complexities of Freeling’s own vision, are largely responsible for his works’ great appeal.
The Van der Valk novels are dominated by the personalities of Van der Valk and his wife, Arlette. The inspector looks at his country through the eyes of a native. The child of a cabinetmaker, an artisan—a fact that he never forgets—Van der Valk is too smart not to recognize his own foibles when in Strike Out Where Not Applicable (1967) he celebrates his promotion by dressing like the bourgeoisie. He is well aware of the significance of such things in a country where social class is clear-cut and important to everyone.
Arlette’s French presence in the series adds a second level to this picture of Dutch life. In a mostly friendly way, Arlette mocks Dutch orderliness and insistence on conformity. Although living among the Dutch, she nevertheless maintains French standards, as in her cooking. Her self-assurance and her support reinforce her husband’s willingness to risk failure while coping with the bureaucratic order that seems so congenial to most Dutchmen, but so life-denying to Van der Valk.
Strike Out Where Not Applicable
Class is a constant issue for Freeling’s characters. In Strike Out Where Not Applicable, for example, all the characters are aware of the social hierarchy at the riding school that forms the novel’s central setting. Without sinking to stereotypes, Freeling looks at the defensiveness of the girl of Belgian peasant stock who has married the successful bicycle racer. Sympathetically, Freeling points up their uneasy position at the edge of a society that will never accept them. The couple is compared to the Van der Valks themselves, another couple who will never truly join the upper middle class. The novel’s victim is a successful restaurateur. When his very proper wife must arrange his funeral, Freeling gives significant attention to her dealings with the undertaker as she tries to ensure that everything will seem acceptable to the town gossips.
In Double-Barrel (1964), the town of Zwinderin—self-satisfied, rigid, repressive, relentlessly Protestant—becomes a character in its own story when its smugness is shaken by a writer of poison-pen letters. In a small town whose citizens spend their free time watching the shadows on other people’s curtains, little escapes the grapevine; although Van der Valk continues to rely on Arlette for information, she herself is a major topic for discussion. The town both creates and shelters the very crime that must be investigated.
A Dressing of Diamond
The concern with class issues also appears in the Castang novels. A Dressing of Diamond (1974) concerns the revenge kidnapping of a child. The sections of the novel devoted to the child’s experiences mainly record her confusion at the behavior of her peasant captors: She is puzzled by the dirt and chaos in which they live, but most of all, she is bewildered by their constant quarrelsomeness and their shouted threats. Brutality is something that bourgeois children rarely meet.
Other levels of social relationships also come under scrutiny in Freeling’s work. In Wolfnight (1982), Castang must deal with the upper class and a right-wing political conspiracy. In The King of the Rainy Country, Van der Valk has to cope with the seductions offered both literally and figuratively by the very rich. Like Castang, he is acutely...
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