‘I am like the King of a Rainy Country,
Rich, but powerless; young, yet feeling wintry;
no longer flattered by the obsequious bow;
Bored by my dogs and by every other creature now,
Nothing brightens my day, not the Hunt, not falconry,
Not the dying people below my balcony.’
Not many crime novels take their titles from Baudelaire; the fact that this one does is an early clue that Nicolas Freeling isn’t your typical crime writer. In The King of the Rainy Country Dutch detective Piet Van der Valk is put on the trail of missing millionaire Jean-Claude Marschal. With no crime having yet being committed, Van der Valk suspects there is more to this assignment – and so it proves, in a chase that takes him from Amsterdam into Germany, Austria and Switzerland before ending on the the French-Spanish border.
If the previous Van der Valk novels have a strong European sensibility, The King of the Rainy Country magnifies this even more. It’s not hard to see where Freeling found his inspiration; in his previous life as a chef he worked all over Europe, and this experience influenced all of his books. In these post-Brexit days this is still striking; but it must have been even more so when the book was first published, and international travel much more limited. There’s more than a touch of 007 about Van der Valk’s hopping from country to country, a comparison that the detective himself makes: ‘I’m driving across the whole breadth of France in a hired Renault when, obviously, I should be burning up the highway in James Bond’s Aston Martin.’
But Van der Valk cannot match the spy in his flamboyance, and he knows it – is glad of it, perhaps. The fact that Van der Valk stays on the trail of his missing millionaire is down to persistence, with not a smart gadget or a femme fatale in sight. His quarry Marschal has disappeared on a whim, seemingly because his immense wealth has meant that he is sated. He can find nothing further in life to excite or interest him. Marschal suddenly vanishes, with seemingly no qualms about deserting his wife, his business and luxury Amsterdam home.
In contrast, Van der Valk is happily married, committed to his job as detective, and consistent. Despite misgivings about the true reasons behind his assignment, Van der Valk is committed to finishing it. Unlike Marschal, he does not disappear at the first sign of trouble:
‘He was a professional. It is only in books that one finds the brilliant amateur detective; real policemen are obstinate and hardheaded, are slow and literal-minded, are frequently mean and nearly always narrow: they have to be.’
Obstinate he may be; but the older I get, the more I admire characters like Van der Valk – perhaps because I can see aspects of myself in them! Van der Valk’s persistence makes him all the more believable (and engaging) as a character – and this is the heart of why Freeling’s books are so satisfying to read. With their intimate tone, it’s as if the author is narrating the story for the first time, and to you alone. In a genre as crowded as crime, singular and distinctive voices are hard enough to find. When you do come across them, they’re all the more worth savouring; and I’m already looking forward to my next encounter with Piet Van der Valk.