Sunday, 23 June 2013

Penguin no. C2282: Because of the Cats
by Nicolas Freeling

What was that English law? Parkinson, that was it. The more bureaucrats there were, the more work became available to occupy them - heer jé, that Parkinson must have Dutch blood. Now was there a Van-der-Valk law too? The fewer children and the more leisure for the parents, the less time there is for caring for them. Both laws operated on the same principle, and both, he thought, are true of Holland. And yet we have so much to hope for. When I am not a policeman I am father of two boys. How do I think about them?

The intriguing title references the words spoken by a member of a gang of disaffected youths. One of their number had suggested that they might collectively avail themselves of the opportunity presented by having bound and gagged a woman in an apartment they were ransacking in Amsterdam, and his only comment was to note that the cats wouldn't like it. But the cats' putative displeasure turns out to be an insufficient deterrent, and the youths rape the woman in a calm and orderly manner, one after the after, unperturbed by the presence of her husband who had been similarly incapacitated.

Deciphering the meaning of the gang member's words is the problem of Piet Van der Valk, Chief Inspector in the Zeden en kinderPolitie department of the Amsterdam Police, which is translated here as 'Morals and Children'. He hopes that by determining who the cats are he will be able to understand the reasons for the crime and find those responsible, as he has little else to go on. He views it as a crime which doesn't fit a recognisable pattern, in which the purpose of the violence seemed to lie in revenge or humiliation, rather than in theft or sexual satisfaction. Perhaps this implies that a gang of students could be responsible, or at least a group of youths still at a self-concerned stage of life in which immaturity and a sense of superiority combine with a lack of awareness about the realities of life. The meaning behind the words comes to him suddenly, as inspired thoughts often do, when he awakes one morning.

In Piet van der Valk, Nicolas Freeling has created a character who can seem, at times, very reminiscent of Maigret. Van der Valk's superior even castigates him at one stage in the investigation with a reminder that he is not Maigret, a warning about his tendency to over-think the solutions to his problems, at times with tragic consequences. For like Maigret, Van der Valk relies on a combination of intuition and patient observation to develop some understanding of the crime he must solve, although he is sometimes aided (and sometimes hampered) by his luck. His strategy with respect to the potential witnesses derives entirely from his inferences about their likely personalities and attitudes, which he bases on outward markers - their occupation, their wealth, where they choose to live. He augments such thoughts in time with conclusions based on their clothes or how they decorate their homes. But sometimes he finds that his inferences are incorrect.

As you read on, the differences between the two characters become more apparent. Van der Valk seems far more hesitant than Maigret, and never as certain of the direction of his investigation. And he is much cruder than Maigret in his thoughts and in his language, and much harsher in his treatment of witnesses and suspects. But he is an effective and unconventional police officer, and something of a maverick, although entirely unconcerned about what this could mean for his career. He seems to thrive on the displeasure or discomfort he engenders, whether it is the self-righteous anger of the parent of a suspect, or the frustration of his superiors when things don't turn out as intended.

Van der Valk's conjectures lead him to focus his attention on Bloemendaal, a pleasant if perhaps bland town recently constructed on Holland's coast, 'the pride of Dutch building and planning'. Its inhabitants seem to share a certain self-satisfied view about their position in the world; the modern housing stock has attracted the skilled and the capable, and in consequence it is a town with the highest per capita income in Holland. No one in Bloemendaal wants to believe that such things are possible in their town, and there is political pressure to maintain the illusion. But these are busy people with little time for their families who seem to have brought up a generation of children with plenty of access to money but little access to guidance; Van der Valk sees it as a problem for Bloemendaal now, and perhaps for Holland in the future, but he must moderate his moralising, for in recognising the failings of the Bloemendaal parents, he also recognises his own inadequacies as a parent.

This is a 1960s novel which questions the priorities of modern living in a Dutch context. While their parents have been busy working and accumulating wealth, the children of Bloemendaal have turned elsewhere for guidance, and someone has been willing to take advantage of their naïveté and feelings of rebellion. The lengths it has been taken to seem fantastic, but Van der Valk's analysis of the motivations of the teenagers and their mentor made for interesting reading.

First published by Victor Gollancz, 1963. Published in Penguin Books, 1965. Cover design by Denise York.

5 comments:

  1. I remember enjoying a TV series of Van der Valk many years ago but have never read any of the novels. This sounds interesting -- thanks.

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  2. I've read this one and a couple of others in the series - I thought _Gun Before Butter_ was excellent, with the characters a lot more likeable (though still quite ambiguously portrayed) than in this one.

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  3. That is some freaky looking cover art...

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  4. I remember watching the TV series as well - it was very good. But I don't recollect ever seeing any of the books anywhere, so maybe I'll try and hunt one down.

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  5. Hi there,

    I just discovered your blog and really like it!
    Here are my thoughts on writing and literature (scrall down for the english version):
    http://lasagnolove.blogspot.de/2013/06/you-get-to-decide-what-to-worship-ii.html

    I'd love to know what you think!

    Have a great weekend&greetings from Europe,
    Bambi

    ReplyDelete

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