Strike Out Where Not Applicable by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"Between the two ancient towns of Haarlem and Leiden is a strip of ground that is famous throughout the whole world. Practically every stranger arriving for the first time in the Netherlands [...] asks 'Where are the bulb fields?'"
Thus begins "Strike Out Where Not Applicable" (1967), the seventh entry in the Van der Valk series and the 28th book by Nicolas Freeling that I am reviewing here. The Dutch location, introduced in the first sentences quoted above, is portrayed so vividly in the novel that I have the feeling of having spent a lot of time there, although my actual memories from Holland are limited to one day in Amsterdam a very long time ago.
There is not much to say about the plot: it really is not that important. Commissaire Van der Valk, after long therapy and convalescent leave following his getting shot and badly wounded on the historical battlefield of Bidassoa, is now in charge of criminal brigade in a small town close to the famous bulb fields of Northern Holland. The owner of a well-known local restaurant dies while horseback riding: everyone believes he was kicked by the horse, except for the local doctor who convinces Van der Valk that things are not so simple as they seem. The Commissaire investigates and eventually has to reach for some non-standard methods in his attempts to solve the case. In the denouement, Mr. Freeling - himself a theoretician of mystery fiction who published an interesting set of essays on "literary masters of crime fiction", Criminal Convictions" - bends the rules of the genre to the point of breaking them. The ending is unexpected and not in the way one expects crime novels to have unexpected endings.
Not only does "Strike Out" offer a brilliant depiction of the Dutch locations, it also is a superb character study. For once, a raving blurb on the book cover has it right: "Nicolas Freeling is at it again, fashioning characterizations with such attentive care that he convinces me I've known the people all my life". I feel exactly the same way and wish I could put it so nicely. Yet, the novel is not a successful mystery, and my unexceptional rating reflects the demands of the genre.
About the title: Van der Valk, who as a policeman would rather try to understand people and worry about the "whys and wherefores", objects to the system whose inflexible rules force him to neatly pigeonhole people and their motives. "Tick where applicable, strike out where not applicable - form filling!"
And, finally, yet another dazzling "Freeling sentence": "Oh mother, the grammar, thought Van der Valk, and cheered himself up with the gentleman who split infinitives, by god, so they would stay split..."
Three and a half stars.
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