Nicolas Freeling was perhaps best known for his series of novels featuring Dutch policeman Piet Van der Valk, which were televised in the 1970s (and revived in the 1990s) with Barry Foster in the title role. Born in Britain, Freeling spent much of his adult life working in mainland Europe; it was whilst working as a chef in an Amsterdam restaurant, and helping himself to a piece of veal to feed his family (common practice at the time) that Freeling was caught and arrested. During his time in custody, Freeling met and was impressed by the detective who would later become the model for Van der Valk.
The Back of the North Wind comes from a second series of novels, featuring the French detective Henri Castang. Castang is based in an unnamed town in the centre of France, and in this novel has to deal with the murder of a foreign student, as well as two fatal robberies. The spectre of police and political corruption also hangs over the novel; it is set during the early 1980s, Francois Mitterand has just been elected President, and there is much jockeying for position amongst the various civil servants and bureaucrats that Castang and his team come into contact with.
Having just finished The Back of the North Wind, I now can say I enjoyed it very much – which is not to say I always did whilst reading it. It’s quite a short book (238 pages, much as you’d expect for a crime novel), but more dense than that suggests. Freeling’s style is an interesting one. He is very much involved in the story as narrator, and there’s a high degree of overlap between him and his characters; thoughts and opinions that are expressed on the page come from one or the other, or perhaps both. On occasions, the story moves from the inside of one character’s head to another, and keeping up with this requires some attention. This is not your typical detective story.
This rich textual stew is also apparent in Freeling’s approach to time, jumping quickly from one scene to the next. This also works in reverse, with Freeling returning to scenes which have already happened, and exploring them in more detail to draw out a particular point. Early in the novel Castang’s superior, Adrien Richard, takes a brief holiday in England; this is a trip that has a profound effect on him, and is frequently revisited in more depth through the rest of the book. Similarly, Richard discusses this holiday with Castang and his wife over dinner one evening, and this occasion is returned to during later sections of the book. It’s somewhat disorientating, but also distinctive; I can’t remember reading a similar technique anywhere else, and certainly not in a crime story.
All of which meant that it took me longer to read the book than I expected; but I am glad I persevered with it. The above techniques draw the reader into the story, and place them right alongside not only Castang and Richard, but also their wives; both women are strong characters in their own right, but also deeply concerned for their husbands and the risks they face. The theme of violence is ever present in this book, and Freeling has much to say about its effects, not only on those physically assaulted, but also for those around them:
‘Your victim, your criminal – these are technical matters. But they both tend to have families, and there is a whole new dimension of uncomprehending pain; the disfigurement if not destruction of several more human personalities. The assassin is his own victim – but what of his wife, his mother? What do you call them? The apparatus of justice is a mincing machine. Don’t get your fingers caught. Nor your tie.’
This distinctive, compassionate tone is very characteristic of the book. Freeling clearly cares very much about the profession of police officer, and wants to show these men and women as fully rounded characters – people with families and homes and frustrations and revelations all of their own. ‘It’s thought that good police work has to be depersonalised,‘ Castang says at one point, to the parents of the murdered student. ‘I believe that the truth is the opposite.’ One might also argue that this is exactly what Freeling is trying to do in this book, in creating fully rounded characters rather than just shadows on a page.
I took particular pleasure in two scenes from towards the end of the book, which on their own were worth the time I spent reading it. The first concerns the pursuit and attempted capture of a suspect at a truck-stop; the literate, well-dressed Castang stands out like a sore thumb, and he knows it:
‘Here he had the uneasy feeling he… had cop written all over his backside. He went to light a cigarette, that face-saving gesture like looking at your lipstick in a pocket mirror, and of course the lighter clicked seven times without working. He shook it crossly.
“If you please,” said a driver with ironic courtesy – he stood up, the whore, to make it worse, with a box of matches. Being French matches three in a row went out as soon as lit: the driver thought this very funny.’
The second scene describes a stand-off, at dawn, amongst the ruins of a house. Whilst elsewhere in the book the dialogue is more meandering, here it is crisp and direct. By this point, we have followed Castang’s investigations, listened to his thoughts and are standing shoulder to shoulder with him. We identify with him completely, and this makes the very real danger he finds himself in all the more real. It’s a clever, confident trick that Freeling pulls, and one that has been made possible by the dense, overlapping style used in the rest of the novel.
Now that I’ve had the chance to sample his work, I’m looking forward to reading more Freeling in the future. As I expected, he’s a unique writer, and one not afraid to experiment and try new techniques. Whilst not always to my taste, Freeling has a distinctive voice; and individuality in a genre as crowded as crime fiction should always be applauded.