The King of the Rainy Country

By Nicolas Freeling

We had four Nicolas Freeling books with us (or it might have been five) because we found this stack of them in a second-hand bookshop, and having read Gun before Butter and enjoyed it. It soon became apparent that, while well written, most often in an engaging style, Freeling had one big
problem, a problem that was already apparent in Gun before Butter: he cannot do endings. Or maybe the unsatisfactory endings are structural and part of what he wanted to achieve, that’s possible too, I suppose.

  • Author: Nicolas Freeling
  • Title: The King of the Rainy Country
  • Pages: 157
  • Published: 1968 (1866)
  • Publisher: Penguin

By an odd coincidence, Nicolas Freeling died when we were on holiday with this stack of his work, on July 24, 2003, at the age of 76. Obituaries appeared in the International Herald Tribune, The Guardian and even Ananova. All reputable commentators agree that Freeling was primarily a novelist and not a crime author. That is to say, he tried to write straight novels where the crime was just an ingredient to put the protagonists under stress.

Indeed, he himself acknowledged this as reported in this letter to The Guardian. I think that he succeeded in his aims: from the first to the last, we are kept abreast with the feelings and actions of both the detective and the criminal, and quite often with those of the victim, too. If you are interested in puzzles, and not in the developing relationship of hunter and hunted, then Freeling’s work is not for you.

The King of the Rainy Country is a case in point: here, Van der Valk is roped in to find a millionaire who’s playing hooky. Both the extravagantly lavish world of the millionaire as the rest of the environment — Netherlands, Germany, Austria and France — are presented in convincing detail. But in that environment, Van der Valk has to cope with the truant’s wife, with evil directors and with desperate parents of a girl who might have been seduced by the millionaire.

Written as a story within a frame — already on the first page or so, Van der Valk gets shot down, and on the last pages we learn what happened: in between is one big flashback — the story ends with a double tragedy as it turns out that hunting is a dangerous game, and that the hunted might take unexpected decisions when cornered.

As a straight novel it is beautiful. Well written, well structured. As a crime novel it succeeds, too, because Freeling managed to keep the suspense strong. Probably because we do not actually follow the criminal in this book, as we did in Gun before Butter.

The Second Seal

By Dennis Wheatley

By all accounts, Dennis Wheatley was a very unpleasant man. Mysogynist, tippler, wastrel, spiritualist, racist, national-socialist, jingoist. But a very famous writer, very popular in his native England until the seventies. Which telles us something about that country in its years of decline.

  • Author: Dennis Wheatley
  • Title: The Second Seal
  • Pages: 483
  • Published: 1950
  • Publisher: Hutchinson

The Seven Seals is set in Europe, from 1912 to about 1917. The protagonist, the improbably named Duc de Richleau (I always thought there needed to be an ‘e’ betwean the ‘ch’ and the ‘l’, but perhaps I’m wrong.), is, since the book was written in 1950 or thereabouts, gifted with a precognition of what’s going to happen, and manages to be in the right spot for the best political intrigue all the time.

There’s a lot that happens in the book, but the story is thin. While working for England, naturally!, Richleau seduces the Austrian Archduchess Ilona. Richleau’s travels carry him all over Europe, and the person who said that Wheatley would have made a good author of travelogues was probably right. Even though I have a nagging suspicion that there wasn’t much actual knowledge underlying the nice descriptive prose.

But his portrayal of women in The Second Seal is unconvincing into the extreme. As is, to be fair, his portrayal of men. And of plot. Dialogue is neatly executed, sometimes, but at about three-quarters the string of occurrences becomes too improbable to satisfy even this avid reader of fantasy, and the prose begins to tire. Especially when another rant about the freedoms of good old England that got lost in the wars takes up a page or two.

A quick skip to the end, because there is a lot that happens, but it never seems really important, and, yes, Ilona and Richleau get each other, so all would end well if she weren’t mortally ill.

One thing this book gave me was a very keen appreciation of how much the rich and crowned of Europe have lost through their stupid war; but I cannot feel sorry for them, and I dare say that that means that Wheatley has failed. Because that’s what he wanted to show us.

That Yew Tree’s Shade

By Cyril Hare

When I gave Zeborah, our friend from New Zealand, a tour of Deventer on the occasion of her visit to us, we did not neglect to visit a few of the dozen or so second-hand bookshops that Deventer can count among its blessings. In one of those, I found The Yew Tree’s Shade, a detective novel by Judge Cyril Hare.

The author’s biography on the back flap of the Penguin paperback (a remark of Rebecca’s today made me wonder when Penguin Putnam is going to sue Linus Torvalds for the misappropriation of their logo) made me buy the book immediately. Anyone who took a ‘First’ (notice the quotes) in History is someone whose stuff I might well like.

The author has served as a Country Court Judge, and this experience shows up well. It’s almost talking shop; but then the chapter that’s all too obviously written from personal, and quite bitter, too, experience turns out to contain essential information about the dramatis personae.

Set shortly after the second world war, this book puts the post-war poverty in Britain, with rationing, housing shortage(1) and attendant crimes in a sharp light. It’s a detective, meaning someone has to die, and someone has to have committed the crime. The plot is puzzling, and admirably constructed. Most of the characters are compelling and believable. If there’s one character that stretches the suspension of disbelief it’s the
young Etonian Godfrey, who spends his Easter holidays with his dissolute mother taking rubbings of brasses in parish churches, reads the Times Literary Supplement in bed, and is altogether so much of a prig that he is shocked when the German maid tells him an improper story in exchange for a proper one of his.

On the other hand, I am quite ready that Godfrey is the author as a young man; the Times Literary Supplement bit where Godfrey reads everything with a voracity that is described as being typical of a young mind; I think the author means his own young mind, because I’ve known plenty of young minds not nearly as voracious. Of course, when I was a teenager, I read all the non-fiction I could get my hands on, subject not important as long as it wasn’t about soccer…

The story is one that works; the puzzle is thoroughly constructed, the setting is thoroughly believable and interesting, a small village that is a perfect antidote to Miss Marple’s Something in the Whatnot, and I want to read more about Mr. Pettigrew. An author to collect. He turns an admirable phrase.

1) A situation not different in the Netherlands after the second world war. Our previous house was a small Dutch ‘arbeidershuisje’, probably comparable to an council estate cottage, only privately built, and when we moved in our neighbor told us the previous inhabitants sublet the front room to a family with children. They lived in the back room with kitchen themselves: the attic rooms were sublet, too.

An Imaginative Experience

By Mary Wesley

A house-guest of ours advised Irina to read Mary Wesley: she suspected that Irina would love her books. Little did they expect that I would love her works, too. An Imaginative Experience is a love story, and a very fine one, written with mildness and love for the dramatis personae.

  • Author: Mary Wesley
  • Title: An Imaginative Experience
  • Pages: 223
  • Published: 1994
  • ISBN: 0-593-03577-1

The story is quite convoluted and is glued together with coincidences. And near the end of the book, the hero indeed remarks to the heroine that he thinks he would never be able to write a book about their experiences, because they are altogether too coincidental.

The hero is a wonderful man; a man who dares to say ‘no’ to a woman, and the heroine is equally wonderful. A woman who manages to snatch the good moments from a horrible life. They thoroughly deserve each other, and the way he proposes to her (‘I want to wake up on a Sunday morning next to you, and hear the Sunday papers fall on the mat, and then decide not to read them’) touches a chord with me.

As do some of the other people. The delightful Patel family, the little girl who gives the hero a small toy — that turns to have a role in the story, Hamish and his mother Calypso. I love them all.

The antagonists are very antagonistic, except perhaps for Rebecca, but she hitches up with a horrible, completely, absolutely disgusting person, so she gets her dues, too. I read this book between six o’clock in the evening and half past two, on a day when I was ill and miserable because I had just had a piece of thoroughly bad news, and it was very good for me. I’ve re-read it twice since then.

There are a few weak points: sometimes, I had the feeling that I was listening to the author’s opinions, instead of dialogue as spoken or thoughts as thought by a character; sometimes I wondered how a girl who ran away from home at 16 and went to live as a
charlady could be as well-educated as Julia. But those are quibbles, really.

Good stuff, in short; Mary Wesley is on our to-buy list now.

Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy

By Freeman Wills Crofts

Life has been a little stressful lately, what with my company going belly-up and then righting itself again and some other, more private matters, that I have had singularly little inclination to get started on the more solid volumes on my to-read pile, preferring instead to read a simple, silly detective story. So that’s why you’re reading about Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (or IFATST) instead of Lud-in-the-Mist.

  • Author: Freeman Wills Crofts
  • Title: Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy
  • Pages: 271
  • Published: 1946 (1927)
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • ISBN: N/A

It’s funny, but the story of IFATST has proven to be instantly forgettable, because I had all but confused it with Trent’s Own Case. IFATST is a plain old manor-house murder mystery with the twist that the manor house is burned down. It is rather well written, in the old-fashioned, solid kind of English that’s so hard to come by nowadays. The characters are sketchy, which is to be expected with this kind of mystery novel; the puzzle is everything.

The puzzle is quite nice, indeed, and I didn’t guess the complete intrigue until the end.

Inspector French, though, is a crashing bore. And he doesn’t become any more charming even if the author were to say he’s charming twice on every page, instead of only one. Really, you don’t want to count the occasions where he’s described with ‘And with his customary charm, he…’. Anyway, this one was quite worth its fifty cents.

The Avenging Parrot

By Anne Austin

The Avenging Parrot was part of a large stack of pre-WW II mystery novels, thrillers and detective novels I bought at a sale at the local library. You can’t go very far wrong for 50 eurocents, I thought, and bought the book.

  • Author: Anne Austin
  • Title: The Avenging Parrot
  • Pages: 255
  • Published: N/A
  • Publisher: Skeffington
  • ISBN: N/A

I’m not sure whether it was worth it. I mean — it’s not the fifty cents I resent, but the space the volume occupies on my shelves. Because The Avenging Parrot is not a good book. Not at all.

There appears to have been in existence a class of mystery novels set in boarding houses. Boarding house mysteries, so to say. Of course, the premise is interesting. In a boarding house there are collected people from all walks of life, but all passers-by, poor and rich. And when one of the steady boarders is murdered, you might end up with an interesting novel.

The Avenging Parrot is set in a small town in the United States. An Irish boy arrives there to come and work in the police force his uncle commands. He’s had some experience in Scotland Yard and is an all-round white boy, very, very white indeed.

In the boarding house there’s an old woman who likes to play with people’s feelings by reassigning her inheritance a lot; and a young girl who’s so infuriatingly droopy that the new police inspector cannot help but fall in love with her. Instant malus points from me.

From there it gets worse. Stilted, clumsy prose. Stupid people. Silly inventions. A completely unbelievable plot. No, Anne Austin is definitely not a good example of the Great Age of detective story authors. Let’s leave it at that…

Trent’s Own Case

By E.C. Bentley

A stack of mystery novels, when bought for 50 cents at a library sale, can give a lot of enjoyment. And anyone familiar with Trent’s Last Case wouldn’t pass up on Trent’s Own Case, I felt.

  • Author: E.C. Bentley
  • Title: Trent’s Own Case
  • Pages: 256
  • Published: 1946 (1936)
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN: N/A

I was ever so slightly mistaken. Trent’s Own Case is apparently co-written by Bently and Warner Allen. It is a very uneven book. Ever now and then there’s a nice, interesting chapter with an interesting cast of characters that do and say interesting things.

And then, suddenly, the action falls still, nothing happens to those character, we have to wait a bit, and then there’s another nice chapter. The worst moment is when two people are killed for no good reason, and that killing isn’t important anymore. It means nothing for story resolution, indeed, Trent doesn’t even learn about it until the end of the book.

Sloppy, in my book.

The plot itself is instantly forgettable, and I won’t give it away here, except to mention that inheritances and madness figure largely.

Currently reading:
Multatuli, Max Havelaar, John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting, Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth, E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison, P.C Hooft, Warenar, E.R. Eddison, Mistress of Mistresses, Hope Mirrlees, Lud in the Mist, Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), Ignace Peckstadt, De sterkte van Gods aanwezigheid, Athanasius van Alexandrië, Het leven van de heilige Antonius, and a slightly diminished stack of old detective novels. And Lloyd Haft’s De Psalmen.

Gun before butter

By Nicolas Freeling

Our library sells used books (not just discarded library copies) for about fifty eurocents, and recently I came home with a stack of old mystery novels. Gun before butter was one of those, by a certain Nicolas Freeling. I’d never heard of the man, although he is apparently well-known, well-respected and still alive.

  • Author: Nicolas Freeling
  • Title: Gun before butter
  • Pages: 224
  • Published: 1965 (1963)
  • Publisher: Penguin Crime
  • ISBN: N/A

Judging from the Penguin edition’s backflap, Nicolas Freeling was launched as the English Simenon. Two books in his first year, immediately followed by the next. Not having read anything by Simenon, I cannot compare them. And I cannot know how much truth there is in the sly dig about hotel maids with no underwear playing a big role in Simenon’s books.

This book, however, shows no private parts, even though it is in some respects a love story. The setting is the Netherlands, in the fifties or sixties, when the butter wars between smugglers and customs ran high at the border between the Netherlands and Belgium.

The book starts out very well. Well written, atmospheric, the author knows his setting, has a feeling for his characters. Then it slows down, but not unpleasantly so. There are a few spots where I have a feeling that Freeling has messed up his timelines, but it’s easy to read past those sections.

However, near the end, we suddenly get an exposition of the crime from the point of view of the criminal. At least, that seems the theory. It’s given in straight omniscient, though, and seems curiously flat.

Still, it was a pleasant and pleasing read.

The Great Impersonation

By E. Phillips Oppenheim

This is one you can read yourself: you can download the e-text of The Great Impersonation here from Project Gutenberg.

  • Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • Title: The Great Impersonation
  • Pages: 318
  • Published: 1946 (1920)
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

The Great Impersonation is generally considered the finest and best of Oppenheim’s books.

I haven’t read enough of the rest to be able to judge, but this completely improbably story of how a down-on-his-luck-whiskey-sodden English nobleman grabs his chance for reinstatement and impersonates the German noblement who intends to impersonate him (as himself) is tremendous fun.

Of course, from page 20 or so, there are no longer surprises to be had, except perhaps for the denouement of the ghostly bit — and the depiction of lady Dominey is as false Talens gold paint. But it’s still fun.

Currently reading:
Multatuli, Max Havelaar, John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting, Dimitri Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth, E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison, P.C Hooft, Warenar, E.R. Eddison, Mistress of Mistresses, Hope Mirrlees, Lud in the Mist, Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), Ignace Peckstadt, De sterkte van Gods aanwezigheid, Athanasius van Alexandrië, Het leven van de heilige Antonius. (Honestly, everything is still on my reading pile, together with a smaller pile of books on veggie gardening, but I’m a bit too tired for Hope Mirrlees, for instance.)

Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo

By E. Phillips Oppenheim

I’ve been on an Oppenheim roll, ever since Irina bought me my third Oppy — The Great Impersonation.

  • Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim
  • Title: Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo
  • Pages: 256
  • Published: 1925 (1913)
  • Publisher: Methuen & Co.

Mr. Grex of Monte Carlo is classic Oppenheim. A British agent, assisted by a plucky American millionaire manage to foil a dastardly plan by a German spy and a Russian Grand Duke to break Britain by destroying its fleet.

The place of action is, naturally, Monte Carlo. Now I now why Bingo Little has to visit Monte for his wife, who needs a bit of couleur locale. I do hope that Oppenheim was able to write from experience; if not then I’ve been taken in completely. It feels as if he knew the geography of the pesthole.

Oh, and the millionaire marries the daughter of the Grand Duke. That’s not a spoiler. Not with this kind of book. What happens between the British agent and his wife, though, that I will keep secret…