Criminal Conversation by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"You are accused of bringing his death about, of your own active agency, by hitherto undetermined means."
In "Criminal Conversation" (1965), the fifth novel in Nicolas Freeling's acclaimed Van der Valk series (and the twenty-sixth book of his that I have reviewed here), the author continues his experiment with having a character narrate the story, in this case a substantial part of it. Luckily, this time it is not the inspector who helps with the narration since such an attempt proved absolutely disastrous in the previous entry in the series, Double-Barrel . Here the results are encouraging and what we have is an interesting psychological crime novel.
The inspector receives a letter that accuses Dr. van der Post of "doing away with a certain Cabestan, an elderly alcoholic painter." It turns out that the author of the letter is Mr. Merckel, a merchant banker and one of the most powerful people in Holland. Van der Valk - unofficially supported by his boss, Commissaris Sampson - embarks on a quiet, private investigation. In the guise of a patient he visits the doctor, and a duel of wits ensues between the two. Their verbal fencing reveals that both are "expansive talkers", which is not a surprise, given that the author is known as an exceptional craftsman of expansive prose.
Part One is a relatively straightforward procedural, while Part Two is Dr. Post's memoir, in which he attempts to show off his top-notch intellect and unparalleled tactical skills. Taunting the inspector he even quotes a sentence that belongs to a police manual: "The characteristic, overriding, never-failing mark of the criminal, by which he can always be recognized, is his immense vanity." Vanity aside, the moving account of the doctor's coming-of-age years is a much better read than his arrogant superiority rants. The denouement will disappoint action-minded readers, but it does suit the overall pensive mood of the book.
For most other authors the novel would rank as an excellent psychological mystery, but it is just a tad below average quality for Mr. Freeling, considering his outstanding literary output.
Two and three quarter stars.
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