Sand Castles by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
"[...] a once bestselling writer whom everybody now thought a joke"
Nicolas Freeling had achieved international fame as one of the best crime novelists of the second half of the 20th century based on a series of novels featuring Inspector, later Commissaris, Van der Valk. I was totally awed when Mr. Freeling killed his main hero mid-case in 1972 in one of the best crime novels of all time A Long Silence . Even though the author was famously known for his disdain of clichés and repetition, discontinuing a series that brought him fame and made a lot of money must have required real courage of conviction. So I was greatly disappointed when I learned that Mr. Freeling succumbed to the readers' pressure and returned to Van der Valk much later in his life. As much as it pains me to say this, Sand Castles (1989), despite some flashes of writing brilliance, is not a good book. The sentence quoted in the epigraph is taken from the novel; does it convey the author's bitterness?
Anyway, Van der Valk walks into a bar... The Commissaris and his wife Arlette are spending vacations on the Dutch coast. In a small seaside town, Van der Valk visits a bar, where he notices some strange goings on. Having followed a suspicious character he discovers quite ugly criminal activity that involves local notables, people in position of responsibility. When these doings are properly dealt with by the Commissaris, it is off to Germany for the vacationing couple. On Norderney island they meet a rather mysterious character, a Mr. Rijk (Herr Reich, in German), a rich businessman who insists on making friends with Van der Valk. "Why is he so damn pally?" wonders the Commissaris. Alas the suspense soon dissipates into a run-of-the-mill thriller that features spies, government agents, right-wing conspiracies, and - as a pièce de résistance - a preacher from Florida. Some people get killed and the climactic scene occurs near the Visbek Bride, a megalith assemblage close to Bremen, in northern Germany. Enchanting place, utterly silly scene.
While Herr Reich is a well-drawn character and the initial suspense is promising, the idiotic plot of the standard thriller variety is so cliché that it is hard to believe it comes from Mr. Freeling. Also, the purpose of including in the novel the first part of the plot escapes me. There are some beautifully written passages, where the places on the Dutch and German coast, the small towns and the big cities, come alive on the pages of Freeling's prose. All in all, though, Sand Castles is - to me - the weakest book by my favorite author: unremarkable, unnecessary, and forgettable. Van der Valk is an ill-conceived revenant.
One and a half stars.
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