Tsing Boum by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Tschin, Bum, Tschin, Bum, Bum, Bum, Bum!
Can you hear, boy? They're coming! [...]
Our soldiers, our soldiers, what handsome creatures!"
(Wozzeck, libretto by Alban Berg)
The title of "Tsing-Boum" (1969), the eighth novel in Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk series, is the French spelling of words from Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck. As usual with Freeling's novels, the title is meaningful. Not only does the onomatopoeic title suggest the 'brothers in arms' thread in the novel, but the explosive words also play an important role in establishing the means of the crime and thus they may be essential in identifying the guilty party.
In the Foreword the author recounts the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, where the French forces suffered a comprehensive and bloody defeat in their war against Viet Minh. The bitterness of this defeat cast a long shadow over the French national psyche for many years to come. The novel begins with Commissaire Van der Valk, who is in charge of the criminal brigade in a provincial Dutch town, investigating the murder of a Frenchwoman, whose husband is a sergeant in the Dutch army. The woman has been killed with a military-type weapon, and her connections with the Dien Bien Phu battle soon come to light. Van der Valk travels to France to uncover the past events that were at the root of the murder.
The novel has three distinct parts: a captivating procedural (one of the best written procedurals I have read), followed by equally interesting sequence of conversations with several high-level military and intelligence types, where Mr. Freeling's virtuosity in portraying complex motives of human behavior shines brightly. Alas, then comes the ending with its gun action, quite silly and incompatible with the deep and reflective tone of the entire book. The ending spoils a potentially great novel.
On the positive side, Mr. Freeling's portrayal of Ruth, the ten-year old daughter of the victim, is masterful - one of the best literary depictions of a child. Ruth comes through as a real person, and I am happy that the plot has her become more than just an incidental character. This and the profound study of the world of ex-professional soldiers make "Tsing-Boum" a worthwhile read.
Three and three quarter stars.
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