Strike Out Where Not Applicable finds Van der Valk newly installed as Commissioner of Police in the provincial town of Lisse, centre of the tulip growing region. The countryside is, ‘Nothing to look at. Flat like all of Holland.’ And the town?
Walls white; painted, plastered, roughcast. Metal window-frames painted grey. Huge windows washed and polished every day. Nothing dirty or tumbledown, nothing disorderly, vexatious or offensive. The world is neat, prim, and unspeakably tidied.
A place entirely mundane, perfect for Freeling to indulge his favourite pastime of satirising small-town Dutch society.
There is a crime, yes, – a local restaurant owner has been killed by a blow to the head after falling from his horse – but neither Freeling nor Van der Valk seem much interested in solving it. Nothing much happens in this connection for more than two-thirds of the book. Instead (and much more interestingly), the crime is simply a pretext for the Van der Valk to acquaint himself the town’s various characters.
The ‘investigation’ centres around the manège – the riding school – where the fatal incident has occurred. Of course, Freeling has chosen this location quite deliberately as a magnet for the most upwardly-mobile and affected of the town’s residents. There is the Marguerite, the sexy, but slightly mannish wife of the deceased, who seems to have an intriguingly close relationship with the restaurant’s manageress, Saskia. There is Rob, an amiable former cycling champion and his saucy wife, Janine, like Van der Valk’s wife Arlette, an outsider by virtue of being French. There is Francis, the owner of the manège, who is partial to a bit of light S&M and likes reading dirty books (the literary kind, of course). Finally, a local painter of portraits and horses, the arrogant and solitary Dickie Six. To all of these a vague motive for murder might be ascribed (blackmail, jealousy, amour fou), but the author is not really interested in that – instead what he presents is a series of amusing and crisply observed pen portraits. Freeling has an unerring eye for the nuances of human behaviour and he describes them wittily and unfussily.
He is similarly skilled and economical in his depiction of the novel’s locations, such as the:
Solid, old-fashioned meeting-places . . . unchanged for a hundred years – heavy and ornate mahogany, plush-upholstered [with] great massive plated monogrammed ashtrays. Places where hobbly old waiters brought quiet elderly gentlemen games of dominoes or chess. No billiard tables, but music at night made by a trio of elderly flatbreasted virgins in dowdy black velvet . . . where you got coffee in heavy scratched little pots, and a glass of water with it.
While Van der Valk – like their elderly habitués – might wish to linger in such places, this is a detective novel and there remains a case to be solved. Thus, with around forty pages to go, Van der Valk organises his minions into a surveillance squad. As in Double Barrel, there is a certain irony in placing characters so obsessed with appearance and comme il faut under observation – it is only what they already do to each other. Even now, however, Van der Valk’s efforts at actual police work seem half-hearted (he would much rather be cosying up to a suspect with a glass of wine). When one of his underlings asks him what they are looking for, he replies wearily, ‘Nobody knows.’
Van der Valk tasks himself with tailing the Dickie Six. It is an easy task because for days the painter walks around absorbed in his own thoughts, observing his surroundings, ‘storing himself up to the brim, soaking himself to saturation.’
Later on [Six] would distil, but first came the process of fermentation, during which impurities and irrelevances scummed up and heaved and turned into the thick crust of rubbish that the winegrowers all ‘the hat’, while the sediment sank, and the turbid, unattractive liquid clarified, and the sugar grew wings as it turned into alcohol. The analogy amused Van der Valk.
Of course it does, because it is an analogy not just between painting and winemaking, but with the process of detective work (and that of writing or reading a detective novel) – the gathering and sifting of irrelevant details before the dénouement rises to the top. Except that in Strike Out Where Not Applicable, as in Freeling’s other novels, it is not the resolution which gives greatest satisfaction, but the process of fermentation.
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First published by Victor Gollancz, 1967. (Hideous) Penguin edition 1985.
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015