A Dressing of Diamonds by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A surprise! A below-average work from Nicolas Freeling, one of my absolutely most favorite authors. Among about 15 books of his that I read (I have reviewed nine of them on Goodreads) there are several masterpieces of the mystery/crime genre and almost all of them are first-rate, deserving four stars. Alas, "Dressing of Diamond", the first novel in the Castang series, is also the first book by Mr. Freeling that I do not much like. Although I love books that surprise me - reading books that are exactly as expected is pretty boring, that's why series are not my thing - "Dressing of Diamond" has surprised me in a "wrong way". Not only do I not understand a presumably important thread in the novel, but also Mr. Freeling's writing, usually superb, maybe the best of all mystery/crime novelists, is not up to his stellar standards.
Colette Delavigne is a Judge of Instruction, specializing in children cases, in a French town. She is happily married to Bernard, a local businessman, and has an eight-year-old daughter, Rachel. One day, when Colette comes home from grocery shopping, Rachel is not home. Colette's panic grows, she calls her daughter's friends and their parents, but Rachel is nowhere to be found. Colette is friends with Inspector Castang's wife, Vera, so she calls the inspector. So far the story has followed rather standard tracks, well known from many thrillers about child abductions.
However, with Castang entering the story, things become strange - the characters talk about finer points of French law using language that sounds stilted and unnatural, resembling fragments of legal or philosophical essays. Absent is the stunning stream-of-consciousness narration of many of Mr. Freeling's books. What's more, a thread develops that suggests the relationships between the four central characters are less straightforward than they seem. This comes from nowhere and leads nowhere so I do not understand the whole purpose of the exercise. Maybe I am too obtuse to get the author's message.
On the positive side, the narration by Rachel is accurately childlike - many authors could learn from Mr. Freeling how children perceive things. The prolonged negotiations with a judge about the applicability of a certain legal procedure are shown with acute insight. The homage to Albertine Sarrazin is moving, and Mr. Freeling still manages to inject some of his wise cynicism, e.g., "the whole society is based upon thinking ill of others, and [...] the chief pleasure of the human animal in all walks of life is back-biting."
Despite the novel being way out of mainstream, which usually is a good thing, and despite several passages showing great depth, I am unable to rate the novel with more than
Two and a half stars.
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