LOVE IN AMSTERDAM by Nicolas Freeling

This week’s much loved crime fiction is submitted by crime writer Ann Cleeves whose work includes a ‘quartet’ of novels set on remote Shetland and a series featuring cranky, clever policewoman Vera Stanhope. 

My reading passion is crime in translation. I love obscure Scandinavians and quirky Frenchwomen. There’s a delicious voyeurism in reading about another culture’s preoccupations and obsessions. Popular fiction is often concerned with the domestic, so we glimpse inside the protagonists’ bedrooms, taste their food and drink their wine. It’s a way of travelling vicariously. My choice of novel isn’t translated, but it first triggered my interest in European crime fiction.

Nicolas Freeling writes in English but he lived for most of his career in Europe and his prose has almost the sense of having been written in a second language. LOVE IN AMSTERDAM, published in 1962, is his first novel and in this book he introduces Van der Valk, his most famous character, and marks his territory. This territory is as different from that of his contemporaries in England as it is possible to be.

In the same year P D James published her first novel, COVER HER FACE. The Amazon blurb describes the book as follows:

‘St Cedd’s church fete has been held in the grounds of Martingale Manor for generations. As if organizing stalls, as well as presiding over luncheon, the bishop and the tea tent were not enough for Mrs Maxie, she also had to contend with the news of her son’s sudden engagement to her new parlour maid, the sly single mother, Sally Jupp.’

This could describe the beginning of one of the Golden Age novels that made up my childhood reading. We have the rural setting, the big house. And class. Whether conscious or unconscious, class is at the heart of the English crime novels of the time. It’s important that Adam Dalgliesh isn’t just a detective, but a scholar and a poet who moves in the same social circles as the respectable people who find themselves accused of murder.

a 1960's cover

a 1960’s cover

In Nicolas Freeling’s books, class is irrelevant. Martin, at the heart of the novel, is a writer, but considers himself the intellectual equal of Van der Valk, and wonders even if the detective will outsmart him. Also irrelevant is the puzzle that formed the heart of English crime fiction for much of the twentieth century. Here we don’t care who killed Elsa, the victim. Freeling’s preoccupations are more earthy, and again reflect those of the European crime fiction that came later – and perhaps those of the Maigret novels of Simenon. He delights us with descriptions of food and the quality of coffee. And if class is at the heart of COVER HER FACE, sex is at the heart of LOVE IN AMSTERDAM.

Here Martin is talking about Elsa, his former lover and the murder victim:

‘She couldn’t live without men. I think she was a bit masochistic physically. She liked to be abused, sworn at, ordered round, punished, deprived for a day or two. She liked being beaten. That’s physical. Mentally, she developed complete power over her men. Not only me; I saw it with other men. They no longer lived unless she was there breathing life into them… She made them do ridiculous things to satisfy her appetite for domination. I think she liked sex for that reason too; it didn’t give her much pleasure, it was the feeling of mastery that was better, sucking all the guts out of a man.’

The book is short – only 190 pages – but it is split into 3 parts. In the first we find Martin in custody, not charged yet with the murder of Elsa de Charmoy, but the Dutch equivalent of ‘helping the police with their enquiries.’ Elsa has been found dead in the house in Josef Israelkade and Martin, now happily married to another woman, has been seen in the street outside the building at the time of the murder. Van der Valk takes Martin back to the crime scene and together they explore its contents to help the detective to get a sense of the victim. They drink coffee and gin. Van der Valk makes it clear that he believes in Martin’s innocence but says that it would serve his purpose to keep him in custody. And Martin trusts him enough to go along with the plan.

an early 1990's re-issue

an early 1990’s re-issue

Part Two is named after another address – Matthew Marisstraat 87. This is the house that belonged first to Elsa and her husband and was later shared by Elsa and Martin. This section of the book charts Martin’s memory of his relationship with his lover from the first moments of friendship and infatuation to its ending. Freeling is especially good at unpicking the disintegration, describing the sense of hope and obligation that keeps a person with a partner long after love and even affection has faded. He is perhaps too generous to Martin and seems to absolve him of all responsibility, but we get a clear picture of a self-destructive woman who needs admiration and attention to survive.

I find the third part – the House of Keeping – the least satisfactory. It consists of a series of interviews with the examining magistrate and with a psychiatrist. Both are eventually convinced of Martin’s innocence and some of the material is repetitive. Then there’s a rather silly climax, with Martin and his wife involved in tracking the killer and spooking him into revealing his guilt. But these are minor quibbles in a book that’s a gem of intelligent characterisation.

I went on to read most of Nicolas Freeling’s books; some I enjoyed immensely and some made no sense at all to me. But LOVE IN AMSTERDAM, short, intense and compelling, remains my favourite.

Book Details:

author: Nicolas Freeling (learn more at euro crime wikipedia)
original language: English
publication date (UK): 1962

Contributor Details:

Ann Cleeves grew up in the English country, first in Herefordshire, then in North Devon. Her father was a village school teacher. After dropping out of university she took a number of temporary jobs – child care officer, women’s refuge leader, bird observatory cook, auxiliary coastguard – before going back to college and training to be a probation officer. While she was cooking in the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle, she met her husband Tim, a visiting ornithologist. Soon after they married, Tim was appointed as warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary. They were the only residents, there was no mains electricity or water and access to the mainland was at low tide across the shore. If a person’s not heavily into birds – and Ann isn’t – there’s not much to do on Hilbre and that was when she started writing. Her first series of crime novels features the elderly naturalist, George Palmer-Jones. A couple of these books, says Ann, are seriously dreadful. Read more about Ann and her work at her website.