The time taken to read a book isn’t always a function of its length. Because of the Cats, Nicolas Freeling’s second novel to feature Dutch policeman Piet Van der Valk (and the third of the books that I’ve read) is less then 200 pages long. But it’s not a quick read, and it’s not your standard policier. For a start, the identities of the guilty parties are known from the very beginning. The story concerns a gang of juvenile delinquents, who have been robbing apartments in Amsterdam and attacking their owners. Van der Valk suspects the inhabitants of what in the UK we would call a new town – described in the novel’s opening lines as ‘a seaside town in Holland; perhaps sixty thousand people. The Ministry of the Interior will have the exact figures.’
This relaxed opening is very characteristic of Freeling’s writing, and also his detective. Superficially, Van der Valk is another one of those maverick investigators who refuses to play by the rules. And yet there’s much more to him than that flippant appraisal suggests. Van der Valk is criticised (in this book, and others) for being too sympathetic, too understanding of humanity’s many frailties (‘You incline always to be too goddam clever; think you’re Maigret or something,’ his superior officer criticises him at one point), but it is this empathy which he uses to push an investigation forward. He suspects that a nightclub owner, Hjalmar Jansen, is behind the teenage gang’s activities, and spends much of the book trying to prove his instincts right, building relationships with the juveniles as well as their parents and teasing out their motivations.
Freeling’s writing is unique, and full of depth and character. As I’ve suggested above, his are not the sort of books you just race through – but they’re all the better for that. And whilst Van der Valk is sympathetic towards the prey which he hunts, his empathy is not boundless. When the point comes at which he needs to turn the screw he does so with alarming precision – all the more apparent given the languid approach he has taken up until that point. Late on in the book, he interrogates the girlfriend of one of the gang members, who has subsequently been found dead on the beach:
‘So you did make love last night?’
‘That’s my private life,’ snivelling.
‘When someone dies by violence he no longer has a private life. His actions, and those of the people concerned with him, become legitimate subjects of enquiry. Answer me.’
The interrogations which form the novel’s climax are well handled, with Van der Valk displaying a steel and a determination that was previously hidden. As the noose tightens, his pragmatic approach to the investigation is now focused on ensuring the gang’s ring-leader is implicated and arrested. Because of the Cats is not a book about who did the crime, but why they did it – and an intriguing fore-runner to the acres of Euro-crime now easily found in any library or bookshop. It’s a shame that Freeling’s books were out of print for so long, although e-editions are now starting to appear. They are more than capable of holding their own against today’s pretenders to the Van der Valk throne.