Sunday, 21 September 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Poison Pen week

the book: Double-Barrel by Nicolas Freeling

published 1964



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES







‘I wish,’ she was saying dreamily, half an hour later, ‘that I had a suspender-belt with little silver bells on.’ It wasn’t till I was half asleep that I remembered that I still hadn’t read the report about the couple down the road, and sniggered. Arlette had her ways of combating her dislike of being a suburban housewife in an identical row of tiny mean houses in the Mimosastraat. How many of the housewives of Zwinderen, I wondered, danced tangos in their living-rooms dressed in a suspender belt. My snigger must have been sensible if not audible because Arlette muttered sleepily. ‘Shut up. In my present condition I mustn’t be vibrated.’

[The next day, Arlette receives an anonymous letter]

She did not speak, but with a nervous shudder held out a plain white envelope. I was delighted. Yes, delighted. Never have I been so pleased. ‘Is this what I think it is?’

‘Yes.’

‘When did it come? And how?’…

She drank some port and tried to grin back. ‘Last night when I got silly and did idiotic tricks with my suspender belt. I got seen – my god, darling . Horrible.’

‘Listen to me. This is not the usual kind of letter, but it’s clearly by the same writer. This is the ordinary three-a-penny abusive kind, and a complete give-away. She just couldn’t resist the temptation to take a chance, wanting to show how clever she was. It’ll hang her.’



observations:
This is Arlette Van der Valk giving the poison pen something to write about: her husband is pleased not because he wants her to be upset, but because he thinks it will give him the breakthrough he needs.

I read the Van der Valk books years ago, and very much enjoyed them: I got this one out again on the valuable recommendation of Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, who knew I was looking at poison pen books (all last week on the blog: click on the label, and see overview post). In it, our Dutch detective and his French wife go and live undercover in a small stuffy town which has been riven by nasty, sex-obsessed letters. (The couple are a bit cavalier in the way they ditch their children to do this.)

There were a couple of surprises: half-way in I was thinking ‘there’s an awful lot of English references here, and quotes from Englit, and don’t the prices seem to be in Brit currency?’ This was the point at which I checked and found out that the books are not translated from the Dutch, nor were they written by an experienced Amsterdam copper. Nicolas Freeling was very cosmopolitan, but he was British, and he wrote in English. I certainly made the wrong assumptions first time round.

Van der Valk is a splendid, nuanced chap, reminding me more of a Len Deighton character than anything – opinionated and funny. I liked the furniture ‘with turned chess queen legs… Since Pieter de Hooch, Dutch interiors have gone downhill.’ He and his wife think the town is like Cold Comfort Farm and that there is a lot of immorality:
underneath all the drum-beating and bell-ringing on Sundays, there was a sort of sexy itch.
In fact the mystery of the poison pen letters is unremarkable (and easily solved) – but the details of the investigation are fascinating as VdV trundles round the town asking questions and looking at people’s lives – 1960s provincial Netherlands not being a place I knew about. And then Freeling obviously decides that a completely different plot strand in the book is more important (I presume this is why it is called Double Barrel) and he loses interest, really, in the letters. There is a lot of discussion of the philosophy and nature of evil. Van der Valk has one really wonderful line:
‘I don’t believe,’ I said, ‘that grace has to be fought for. I believe it’s there for the asking.’
I had forgotten how good these books are, AND they are very short. He wrote several different series, and there’s a non-series one called The Dresden Green, which I remember as being excellent.

This is the end of Poison Pen week on the blog – though I will happily do more entries if anyone comes up with a suggestion as good as Margot’s. (Send me an unsigned note if you like.) You can find the other books by clicking on the poison pen label below, and there is a round-up post with the tropes of the genre and a list of books here.

Picture is from the NY Public Library.

16 comments:

  1. This was a great theme -- thoroughly enjoyed it and I have so much more to read now (and I second how good Freeling is, though I've not read this one [yet!]).

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    1. Thanks so much Vicki. I'm inspired to read more of Freeling - I really had forgotten how good, clever and funny he was.

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  2. Moira - First, thanks for the kind mention. :-) - I'm glad you enjoyed Double Barrel. It does sort of switch focus from the letters to something else, but at least for my money, I don't think Freeling loses sight of the 'letters' plot. And I do like the way he makes it clear how frightening it can be to get such a letter. Oh, and I'm glad you liked VdV and his wife. I thought they were great characters.

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    1. Thanks again Margot - what a great recommendation! And yes, great characters. It's nice to see a policeman enjoying a happy marriage for once...

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  3. Very interesting series, and a theme I don't often see in the States. I'm sure there are books with poison pen letters over here, but don't know about them. The movie "The Letter" is a classic although slightly different.

    How about a bit later on a theme of good village mysteries. I don't usually read these, although they are a staple of English crime fiction, and may be "old hat" to many readers.

    Or how about one on the "best" Golden Age mysteries? Or perhaps "the best" contemporary mysteries? Or maybe on the different styles of U.S. and British crime fiction? Or "the favorite humorous mysteries"?

    It's all good, especially with the accompanying photos of appropriate clothing, many beautiful, and others fun.

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    1. Now you mention it, I don't remember coming across it in any US books, even those set in small towns which might be the equivalent of the UK village. I wonder why it's a British thing?
      Thanks for great ideas for more lists, I will definitely look at these.

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    2. Americans were too blunt to mess around with poison one letters. They just picked up the phone or had it out in the street.

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    3. I love that idea Curtis - there's surely an article on national characteristics buried in there somewhere....

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  4. Thanks Moira - I remember liking the TV show but have never in fact read any of the books - sound a lot better than I thought actually.

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    1. Much more thoughtful than I was expecting, and a little bit subversive. I think the TV series was levelled out, more bland. Books worth a try.

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  5. I'll antagonise you and say the one Van der Valk-Freeling book I read last year was dull and boring. Ok probably over-stating it, but I can't say I'm ever going to read another. Not when I could be pulling out my fingernails with a pliers instead.

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    1. I do remember you reviewing one - it's funny, I'd have thought he'd be more your thing than mine, but I'm definitely left wanting to read more.

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  6. The only Van der Valk I ever read was absolutely dreadful. I thought it was odd, as I'd loved the television series. Your review makes me think that I should try another one, perhaps I was just unlucky in the one I read.

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    1. I wonder if his books vary a lot? There has been some markedly different comments on him here and on a discussion board - perhaps it depends which book you read. I'll read another and see...

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  7. I don't know how I missed this post. I am definitely interested in trying this author. I have this book and a few that follow it, but I usually like to start with the first book in a series. I am still not sure if I will like them, but the short length is a plus.

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    1. I blog too much is probably the answer Tracy! I think you might like Freeling - the setting and the characters are very good.

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