Saturday, August 29, 2015

The King of the Rainy CountryThe King of the Rainy Country by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Je suis comme le roi d'un pays pluvieux,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux, [...]"

("I am like the king of a rainy country:
Rich - and impotent: young - and very old",
(Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal)

Another Freeling disappointment, luckily not a major one this time. "The King of the Rainy Country" (1966), the sixth entry in the celebrated Van der Valk series is quite a famous book: it won the prestigious Edgar Award for the Best Novel of 1967 from the Mystery Writers of America, probably the most important award in the mystery and crime genre. Yet - although this is a very good novel indeed - I think it is nowhere as good as several other works by the author. So let me assume that the MWA was correcting their error of having overlooked Gun Before Butter in 1963.

The novel begins with quite a bang: inspector Van del Valk is shot and almost killed on the historical battlefield of Bidassoa, close to the French-Spanish border. The rest of the book recounts the events that have led to this shooting. The owner of an important Dutch company, a multi-multi-millionaire, has suddenly disappeared without a trace and the inspector is asked by his superior to use tact and discretion in finding the missing man. The search takes Van der Valk to Köln, Innsbruck, Chamonix, a village in the Vosges (probably the same where Mr. Freeling himself settled with his family in the 1970s), and finally to Biarritz. With its interesting plot the book is unputdownable and in places it reads like a great travel guide: in particular the vivid and detailed account of skiing competition in the Alps is memorable.

This is a very well written book, with passages of delightful "freelingesque" quirky prose abound. The atmosphere of multinational Europe is captured with unparalleled mastery. Yet the author's frequent and explicit references to Charles Baudelaire's poem "Spleen" (whose first verses are quoted in the epigraph) and to the famous Mayerling incident of 1889 feel forced, and the novel does not have that genre-transcending quality that would raise it to the level of a literary masterpiece. "The King" would be a four-and-a-quarter-star novel for most other mystery writers - not for Mr. Freeling, though; he has demonstrated that he can write even better!

(By the way, notice how much the language changed in 50 years: "Jean-Claude was gay and happy," writes Mr. Freeling, and he is not referring to sexual orientation.)

Three and three quarter stars.

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