Gun Before Butter by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lucienne Englebert, a protagonist of Nicolas Freeling's "Gun Before Butter" (1963) is as unforgettable a character as the much more recent Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson's famous "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". Both are strong. compelling, complex, and very well written female characters. I read Mr. Freeling's book for the first time in the early 1970s, and ranked it then among masterpieces of the crime genre, along Rex Stout's "Murder by the Book" and Sjowall/Wahloo's "The Laughing Policeman". I have just finished re-reading the novel, and my opinion has not changed; it is indeed a masterpiece of the genre, and my only problem is whether to award it four or five stars.
Inspector Van der Valk, probably my most favorite of all fiction detectives, a nonconformist policeman, critical of Dutch stolidity, provincialism, and isolationism, and a "queer character" overall, often does not do his police work by the book. He meets Lucienne for the first time at the scene of an auto accident where her father dies. Van der Valk is investigating a murder that happened in Amsterdam but which also has connections to Germany and Belgium.
Mr. Freeling's observations of European cities and people are phenomenally sharp. As in all his novels, he masterfully captures the essence of Europeanness (were he alive, he would be very happy about the current state of the EU) and satirizes the stereotypes about European nations. (He also makes jokes about the French, which is always a plus in my book, just kidding...) The passage where Lucienne judges her customers based on the look in their eyes exhibits unusual psychological depth. The conversations between Lucienne and her admirers ring true and they help elevate this mystery book to a first-class literary status.
The ending is astounding, but understandable upon reflection. Unfortunately, in the so-called real life there are very few policemen of Van der Valk's caliber. Probably none.
Wonderful title, believable characters, great writing, engrossing mystery. I decided to round my rating up. Of course, "Gun Before Butter" is not exactly in the same class as Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", Coetzee's "Disgrace", or Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49", but within its genre, it would be very hard to find a better novel.
Four and a half stars.
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