‘You have acquired a professionalism, a competence – and the usual police skills. But not the real police mentality.’
I last encountered Van Der Valk in 1963’s Gun Before Butter. Double-Barrel, the fourth novel to feature Nicolas Freeling’s independent-minded Dutch detective, appeared a year later. Van Der Valk is an eccentric and intelligent policeman (top of his class in police college, but the worst recommendation from the instructors), much given to pontification and commentary on his fellow-countrymen.
In Double-Barrel he is posted to the small town of Zwinderen in the northern province of Drente. Zwinderen is at heart a poor place, built on bogland, but it is being rapidly transformed by industrialisation and an influx of workers from elsewhere in Holland (there is a real village named Zwinderen, by the way, but it is tiny).
Somewhere between the homes of the slightly odd, deeply Calvinist inhabitants and the modern houses of the more sophisticated newcomers, a poison pen has taken root. The letters have led to two deaths already, and their author remains a complete mystery to the police.
All I had to do was clear up an affair that had not only baffled a lot of people just as intelligent as me, but that had also been trodden on by so many big boots full of flat feet as to be nearly illegible.
In Zwinderen he assumes the guise of a bureaucrat from the capital, a state functionary conducting ethnographic research into the fast-growing town. This ill-defined and incomprehensible role gives him access to everyone connected with the case. It is also, I think, closer to his real métier. Van Der Valk is an unorthodox sort of policeman – a philosopher and a dreamer who, amongst other things, collects living rooms.
I am bitten by them the way people are bitten by stamps or butterflies. Excellent example here of genus provincial grandeur, species higher functionary. It was a big room, L-shaped, a pleasant room , bright and sparkling, and it illustrated well, I thought the species.
He ends up conducting his investigation almost as an ethnographer, striving to understand the victims rather than the criminal, a task which allows the author to expound the short-comings of the provincial Dutch in unforgiving detail.
She looked at me as though I were a lavatory attendant, drunk on duty at that.
Basically, nobody is giving anything away. Respectability reigns in Zwinderen, so people are none too keen to own up to receiving letters. Van Der Valk has to trick or bully the victims into owning up, and when he does, their sins are hardly worth writing home about, let alone writing anonymously about.
He has two allies in the town. His wife Arlette accompanies him on his undercover posting, and with a certain amount of disdain agrees to sink to the level of the gossiping housewives. Another ally is Besançon, a reclusive Holocaust survivor and the chief suspect in previous investigations, whom Van Der Valk refuses to suspect out of vanity. However, he feels there is something else going on with the old man and never grows to trust him.
The mystery is fairly thin (and even I guessed the solution very early on), but I enjoyed Double-Barrel as a window onto a particular world. Van Der Valk gets some lovely one-liners, usually barbs directed at the small-mindedness of this small town. The first-person narrative gives us a closer look at the inner workings of his mind as he gets under the skin of Zwinderen and finally locates the poison pen.
Confessions of a Mystery Novelist: One element that runs through this novel is paranoia. The people of Zwinderen are, by and large, terribly afraid to let down their guards. They’re afraid of any behaviour that might give even the appearance of impropriety. And there’s the natural paranoia that comes with the feeling that one’s being watched. There’s also the paranoia of those who’ve gotten letters. Several won’t admit to having received them – not even to their spouses. What’s effective about this paranoia is that it’s subtle. We see it in nervous glances, dissembling and in some cases, bravado rather than in obvious ways.
Graeme Macrae Burnett: 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.