The Widow by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"Nothing Arthur detested more than cliché. He sought them out, pounded upon them, took them by the scruff and kicked their arse."
Arthur Davidson - Arlette's second husband whom she married after Commissaire Van der Valk had been killed (cf. the extraordinary A Long Silence) - is the alter ego of the author, Nicolas Freeling, who was born Nicolas Davidson. The fervent hatred of clichés of all kinds neatly characterizes not only the fictitious Mr. Davidson, a fussy, scholarly, annoying, and very British sociology professor, but also Mr. Freeling in whose books - and this the 31st book of his that I am reviewing here - one would have to look long and hard to find a cliché character, situation or opinion.
Arlette, who lives with her husband in Strasbourg, decides to open an advice bureau ("Arlette van der Valk: Counsel and aid; personal and family problems"), where she hopes to help people deal with difficult situations in their lives: she sees her role as a combination of Dear Abby, a psychoanalyst, a priest, and a private detective. Her first three clients are a woman with three kids who is being abused by her violent boyfriend, an eighteen-year old high-school student fearing that her father is about to lock her in a mental institution, and a paranoid-sounding businessman convinced that someone is trying to kill him. All three cases prove more complicated than Arlette has expected; one person dies, Arlette's own life is in danger, and the police get involved.
Not only does Mr. Freeling abhor clichés, but he also hates routine. I have read about 20 books by Sue Grafton, roughly the same number by Jonathan Kellerman, perhaps about 30 by Rex Stout, and the main problem with them is that all books in a series are basically the same. Minor variations of plot and characters are not enough to make me feel that I am reading a new book. Not so with Nicolas Freeling - the repetitive elements are kept to a minimum, and almost all his books are of the one-off type, even if they are installments of a series and the same characters are featured. The moods, the emphases, even the writing styles are different and unique for almost all books. This is one reason why I love Mr. Freeling's work. Some of the other reasons are his fierce Europeanness (a tasty combination of the British, the French, and the Dutch ingredients, with generous helpings from other nations), and of course the wonderfully accomplished prose - an unusual literary feat for the mystery/crime genre.
In addition to captivating plot "The Widow" (1979) delivers superb characterizations of Arlette and Arthur, and a vivid portrayal of Strasbourg and its vicinity, with their French and German elements, which finally seem to coexist in peace and harmony. A modest but very good novel that pounds upon clichés, takes them by the scruff and kicks their arse!
Three and three quarter stars.
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