LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
‘I wish,’ she was saying dreamily, half an hour later, ‘that I had a suspender-belt with little silver bells on.’ It wasn’t till I was half asleep that I remembered that I still hadn’t read the report about the couple down the road, and sniggered. Arlette had her ways of combating her dislike of being a suburban housewife in an identical row of tiny mean houses in the Mimosastraat. How many of the housewives of Zwinderen, I wondered, danced tangos in their living-rooms dressed in a suspender belt. My snigger must have been sensible if not audible because Arlette muttered sleepily. ‘Shut up. In my present condition I mustn’t be vibrated.’
[The next day, Arlette receives an anonymous letter]
She did not speak, but with a nervous shudder held out a plain white envelope. I was delighted. Yes, delighted. Never have I been so pleased. ‘Is this what I think it is?’
‘When did it come? And how?’…
She drank some port and tried to grin back. ‘Last night when I got silly and did idiotic tricks with my suspender belt. I got seen – my god, darling . Horrible.’
‘Listen to me. This is not the usual kind of letter, but it’s clearly by the same writer. This is the ordinary three-a-penny abusive kind, and a complete give-away. She just couldn’t resist the temptation to take a chance, wanting to show how clever she was. It’ll hang her.’
observations: This is Arlette Van der Valk giving the poison pen something to write about: her husband is pleased not because he wants her to be upset, but because he thinks it will give him the breakthrough he needs.
I read the Van der Valk books years ago, and very much enjoyed them: I got this one out again on the valuable recommendation of Margot from Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, who knew I was looking at poison pen books (all last week on the blog: click on the label, and see overview post). In it, our Dutch detective and his French wife go and live undercover in a small stuffy town which has been riven by nasty, sex-obsessed letters. (The couple are a bit cavalier in the way they ditch their children to do this.)
There were a couple of surprises: half-way in I was thinking ‘there’s an awful lot of English references here, and quotes from Englit, and don’t the prices seem to be in Brit currency?’ This was the point at which I checked and found out that the books are not translated from the Dutch, nor were they written by an experienced Amsterdam copper. Nicolas Freeling was very cosmopolitan, but he was British, and he wrote in English. I certainly made the wrong assumptions first time round.
Van der Valk is a splendid, nuanced chap, reminding me more of a Len Deighton character than anything – opinionated and funny. I liked the furniture ‘with turned chess queen legs… Since Pieter de Hooch, Dutch interiors have gone downhill.’ He and his wife think the town is like Cold Comfort Farm and that there is a lot of immorality:
underneath all the drum-beating and bell-ringing on Sundays, there was a sort of sexy itch.In fact the mystery of the poison pen letters is unremarkable (and easily solved) – but the details of the investigation are fascinating as VdV trundles round the town asking questions and looking at people’s lives – 1960s provincial Netherlands not being a place I knew about. And then Freeling obviously decides that a completely different plot strand in the book is more important (I presume this is why it is called Double Barrel) and he loses interest, really, in the letters. There is a lot of discussion of the philosophy and nature of evil. Van der Valk has one really wonderful line:
‘I don’t believe,’ I said, ‘that grace has to be fought for. I believe it’s there for the asking.’I had forgotten how good these books are, AND they are very short. He wrote several different series, and there’s a non-series one called The Dresden Green, which I remember as being excellent.
This is the end of Poison Pen week on the blog – though I will happily do more entries if anyone comes up with a suggestion as good as Margot’s. (Send me an unsigned note if you like.) You can find the other books by clicking on the poison pen label below, and there is a round-up post with the tropes of the genre and a list of books here.
Picture is from the NY Public Library.