Nicolas Freeling: Gun Before Butter

Gun Before ButterGun Before Butter
Nicolas Freeling
First published in the UK 1963, Victor Gollancz
This edition Penguin Books, 1965
ISBN: 9780140022803
224 pages
Source: M. & A. C. Thompson, Wymondham, Norfolk

Van der Valk is a cop show I dimly remember my parents watching in the 70s, but I had never really thought of checking out the books, until I read crime writer Jason Goodwin’s entry on Gun Before Butter in Books to Die For. Goodwin says:

I wish I’d eaten a souffle made by Freeling, he must have cooked, as he writes, with a light hand.

Gun Before Butter opens with Amsterdam cop Van der Valk’s episodic brushes with the complicated life of a young woman called Lucienne Engelbert. Their first meeting is inauspicious – he witnesses the car crash which kills her father, a famous conductor. The second is awkward – she has been accused of stealing from her employer, a kindly music-shop owner. Then some Italian boys she is hanging around with get involved in a street brawl which ends in a stabbing. Lucienne is headstrong and proud, politically radical, with a tendency to meet trouble head-on. It is with some relief that the Inspector eventually sees her off to a new life outside Holland – but they are fated to meet once more.

Some time later, a beat cop’s concerns about a white Mercedes, badly and somehow un-Dutchly parked outside an Amsterdam residence, lead to the discovery of a man’s body inside. Van der Valk gets the case by virtue of its apparent oddness.

Van der Valk is an unconventional and whimsical detective who must surely have influenced Fred Vargas when she came up with Adamsberg. He is similarly unconventional, a thinker and dreamer whose mental processes do not fit into the standard police mould, but who yet has his uses.

He got thrown the queer jobs. Anybody with a funny name or a funny business. Or who talked other languages – had he not said that Dutch was a language for farm-girls to call the chickens in? In fact his superiors had given up detesting him. Now they merely disapproved of him. He set a bad example to junior rechercheurs to be sure, but there were things he was good at. He was in consequence perhaps the only policeman in Holland who could get away with drinking on duty and laughing out loud, and not wearing grey suits and speckled ties.

And so he is assigned the investigation into the stabbing of Meinard Stam, of whom nothing is known.

As soon as Stam’s body is removed from the house, Van der Valk helps himself to some of the dead man’s whiskey and a cigar, and settles down in a comfy chair for a think (later on, he also takes advantage of a bottle of red wine and a bed).

Stam’s house shows no signs of a personality beyond a single artwork showing an Amsterdam water-front scene. Only Van der Valk would see this as a clue, but it proves vital to uncovering the truth of Stam’s life and death. Van der Valk’s eventual discoveries please his superiors, and they regard the case as closed, but he is driven to keep on digging – to his own great regret.

The final part of the book is a love story of sorts, movingly written but with a grim inevitability about it.

The writing style is interesting. Freeling was English but lived much of his life in Europe, and his phrasing somehow has the slightly quaint feeling that sometimes comes across in translations. There are some lovely images, for example:

The Frans van Mieris is a dreary street, rather typical of the district. Quiet, ponderous buildings, full of velvet curtains and too much over-polished furniture […] Van der Valk enjoyed the gloomy dignity, as though the street were drunk and wore a wig.

I think Gun Before Butter will end up as one of my books of the year. It’s definitely one for fans of Fred Vargas (not in terms of the style of the story, but for Van der Valk’s personality).

Before you read it, check out the intro to the Van der Valk series. A proper theme tune:

I couldn’t quite work out why the book was called Gun Before Butter (OK, the butter part is obvious once you find out what Stam does for a living). Looking for some other reviews online I discovered the guns versus butter model. I get the model, but I don’t see how it relates to the book. Answers on a postcard, please.

Final destination: A keeper

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Nicolas Freeling: Gun Before Butter

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Oh, I’ve always liked this series, Rich. Very glad you enjoyed this one. And you know, I didn’t think about the similarities between Van der Valk and Adamsen until you brought it up. Interesting…


  2. I’m going to be humming that theme tune for a week now! I read quite a few VdV books a few years back, but haven’t revisited them: you certainly make a persuasive case for picking them up again…


  3. Great review Rich – the Freeling books were so big at the time and yet seem to have fallen into comparative obscurity – nice to see the books getting their due again – cheers mate.


  4. TracyK says:

    I picked up several books by Freeling at a book sale recently, and I am hoping I like them. This was not one that I found, unfortunately. Thanks for the review.


  5. Pingback: Nicolas Freeling: Double-Barrel | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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