LOVE IN AMSTERDAM by Nicolas Freeling

This week’s much loved crime fiction is submitted by crime writer Ann Cleeves whose work includes a ‘quartet’ of novels set on remote Shetland and a series featuring cranky, clever policewoman Vera Stanhope. 

My reading passion is crime in translation. I love obscure Scandinavians and quirky Frenchwomen. There’s a delicious voyeurism in reading about another culture’s preoccupations and obsessions. Popular fiction is often concerned with the domestic, so we glimpse inside the protagonists’ bedrooms, taste their food and drink their wine. It’s a way of travelling vicariously. My choice of novel isn’t translated, but it first triggered my interest in European crime fiction.

Nicolas Freeling writes in English but he lived for most of his career in Europe and his prose has almost the sense of having been written in a second language. LOVE IN AMSTERDAM, published in 1962, is his first novel and in this book he introduces Van der Valk, his most famous character, and marks his territory. This territory is as different from that of his contemporaries in England as it is possible to be.

In the same year P D James published her first novel, COVER HER FACE. The Amazon blurb describes the book as follows:

‘St Cedd’s church fete has been held in the grounds of Martingale Manor for generations. As if organizing stalls, as well as presiding over luncheon, the bishop and the tea tent were not enough for Mrs Maxie, she also had to contend with the news of her son’s sudden engagement to her new parlour maid, the sly single mother, Sally Jupp.’

This could describe the beginning of one of the Golden Age novels that made up my childhood reading. We have the rural setting, the big house. And class. Whether conscious or unconscious, class is at the heart of the English crime novels of the time. It’s important that Adam Dalgliesh isn’t just a detective, but a scholar and a poet who moves in the same social circles as the respectable people who find themselves accused of murder.

a 1960's cover

a 1960’s cover

In Nicolas Freeling’s books, class is irrelevant. Martin, at the heart of the novel, is a writer, but considers himself the intellectual equal of Van der Valk, and wonders even if the detective will outsmart him. Also irrelevant is the puzzle that formed the heart of English crime fiction for much of the twentieth century. Here we don’t care who killed Elsa, the victim. Freeling’s preoccupations are more earthy, and again reflect those of the European crime fiction that came later – and perhaps those of the Maigret novels of Simenon. He delights us with descriptions of food and the quality of coffee. And if class is at the heart of COVER HER FACE, sex is at the heart of LOVE IN AMSTERDAM.

Here Martin is talking about Elsa, his former lover and the murder victim:

‘She couldn’t live without men. I think she was a bit masochistic physically. She liked to be abused, sworn at, ordered round, punished, deprived for a day or two. She liked being beaten. That’s physical. Mentally, she developed complete power over her men. Not only me; I saw it with other men. They no longer lived unless she was there breathing life into them… She made them do ridiculous things to satisfy her appetite for domination. I think she liked sex for that reason too; it didn’t give her much pleasure, it was the feeling of mastery that was better, sucking all the guts out of a man.’

The book is short – only 190 pages – but it is split into 3 parts. In the first we find Martin in custody, not charged yet with the murder of Elsa de Charmoy, but the Dutch equivalent of ‘helping the police with their enquiries.’ Elsa has been found dead in the house in Josef Israelkade and Martin, now happily married to another woman, has been seen in the street outside the building at the time of the murder. Van der Valk takes Martin back to the crime scene and together they explore its contents to help the detective to get a sense of the victim. They drink coffee and gin. Van der Valk makes it clear that he believes in Martin’s innocence but says that it would serve his purpose to keep him in custody. And Martin trusts him enough to go along with the plan.

an early 1990's re-issue

an early 1990’s re-issue

Part Two is named after another address – Matthew Marisstraat 87. This is the house that belonged first to Elsa and her husband and was later shared by Elsa and Martin. This section of the book charts Martin’s memory of his relationship with his lover from the first moments of friendship and infatuation to its ending. Freeling is especially good at unpicking the disintegration, describing the sense of hope and obligation that keeps a person with a partner long after love and even affection has faded. He is perhaps too generous to Martin and seems to absolve him of all responsibility, but we get a clear picture of a self-destructive woman who needs admiration and attention to survive.

I find the third part – the House of Keeping – the least satisfactory. It consists of a series of interviews with the examining magistrate and with a psychiatrist. Both are eventually convinced of Martin’s innocence and some of the material is repetitive. Then there’s a rather silly climax, with Martin and his wife involved in tracking the killer and spooking him into revealing his guilt. But these are minor quibbles in a book that’s a gem of intelligent characterisation.

I went on to read most of Nicolas Freeling’s books; some I enjoyed immensely and some made no sense at all to me. But LOVE IN AMSTERDAM, short, intense and compelling, remains my favourite.

Book Details:

author: Nicolas Freeling (learn more at euro crime wikipedia)
original language: English
publication date (UK): 1962

Contributor Details:

Ann Cleeves grew up in the English country, first in Herefordshire, then in North Devon. Her father was a village school teacher. After dropping out of university she took a number of temporary jobs – child care officer, women’s refuge leader, bird observatory cook, auxiliary coastguard – before going back to college and training to be a probation officer. While she was cooking in the Bird Observatory on Fair Isle, she met her husband Tim, a visiting ornithologist. Soon after they married, Tim was appointed as warden of Hilbre, a tiny tidal island nature reserve in the Dee Estuary. They were the only residents, there was no mains electricity or water and access to the mainland was at low tide across the shore. If a person’s not heavily into birds – and Ann isn’t – there’s not much to do on Hilbre and that was when she started writing. Her first series of crime novels features the elderly naturalist, George Palmer-Jones. A couple of these books, says Ann, are seriously dreadful. Read more about Ann and her work at her website.


This week’s much-loved novel comes to us from Moira Redmond whose blog offers a unique slant on the mystery genre. Clothes in Books discusses a wide variety of crime novels from the golden age right through to the latest releases but Moira always has some fascinating observations about the clothes and accessories that characters are wearing and what this might say about them or their environments. There are usually luscious pictures too.

I am so pleased to contribute something to this site: I did not know Maxine well or for long before her sad death, but she was so welcoming and friendly. I kept noticing the word ‘generous’ in the tributes to her, and that was what struck me about her, as she took the time out to go and read and comment on my blog, making a point of welcoming a new face on the block. So I am glad to do something in her memory.


Original edition (1981)

As a devoted crime fiction fan I have read an awful lot of books (my collection of detective stories is bigger than the crime section in most bookshops) and I love all the classic crime writers: Christie, Sayers, Allingham – and a lot of modern ones too. But if, as happens, people ask me what’s my favourite, it’s this one, and that’s partly because of its position as a bridge between old-fashioned and newer books. THUS WAS ADONIS MURDERED was first published in 1981, and is very much of its time (the bread strike!) but it is a perfect mesh of old-fashioned clueing and plotting, and more modern attitudes and characters. At that time it sometimes seemed you could read Golden Age classics, and you could read modern psychological thrillers, but not much else. This was the book that gave me faith that traditional murder stories would live on and adapt to modern times.

The story is almost unnecessarily well worked out – the structure is positively byzantine: young barrister Julia has gone for a short holiday in Venice. She writes letters every day (! Yes, you just have to suspend your disbelief. And believe us, any young people reading, this didn’t happen even then, in the days before email and mobile phones) to her group of lawyer friends back home, who gather in the local wine bar to hear the latest reports. But, they are simultaneously hearing urgent news, in real time, relating to her holiday – a murder has been committed. So throughout there is a double time framework: ‘Now’, and ‘a few days before’, in Julia’s letters. Is that clear, then? But actually this doesn’t matter at all, surprisingly: I have a complete conviction that Sarah Caudwell worked with precise double timetables, but I’ve never bothered to check. (The book it most resembles in this respect is WUTHERING HEIGHTS which also has an over-complex reporting procedure.)

A view of Venice (courtesy Perry Photography)

A view of Venice (courtesy Perry Photography)

The Venice setting is lovely, the book is very funny, the characters are endearing and well-formed, and the murder is extraordinarily well-worked-out. And after the high spirits of the group, there is something very affecting about the final explanation, a hint of the sadness and waste, of everything going wrong.

The group of characters feature again in three more books (over nearly 20 years), much anticipated by Sarah Caudwell’s fans, and then, so sadly, she died. She was the daughter of the woman believed to be the model for Christopher Isherwood’s Sally Bowles, and was a distinguished lawyer, an expert in tax law. (You’d guess that from the books, which often feature arcane financial questions).

This book just gets it right – it is funny and light-hearted without being that dreadful thing, a comedy thriller. And there is one last mystery: the best one of all. The main character and narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar, is surely almost unique in having a major role in four crime novels without our ever knowing whether s/he is a man or a woman…

Book Details:

author: Sarah Caudwell (learn more at Wikipedia)
original language: English
publication date (UK): Penguin 1981

Contributor Details:

Moira Redmond blogs at Clothes in Books where each day a different book is discussed with an emphasis on the clothes, shoes, hats and assorted accoutrements the book’s characters wear and use. If you’re visually inclined you might also like to follow the Clothes in Books Pinterest page – it’s simply gorgeous!


This week’s post comes to us from Martin Edwards: solicitor, crime writer and all around enthusiast for the genre and its history, a fact evidenced by his 2007 appointment as the archivist of the Crime Writers Association and his weekly contributions to Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme (which, if you’ve not yet discovered it, is a veritable treasure trove of suggestions for the crime fiction fan with an interest in books published before last week).

Maxine was a thoughtful and perceptive reviewer, someone who looked for positive things to say about a book, but who was fair and balanced whenever she expressed a reservation. As a result, words of praise from her meant a great deal to me and, I am sure, to the many other writers who benefited from both her critical insight and her generosity.

Malice-aforethought-iles-originalIn remembering Maxine, I’d like to talk about a book which I first read as a teenager and have returned to several times in the intervening years. It’s often cited as a classic of the genre, and with good reason. The title is MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, and it was published in 1931 by Francis Iles. This was a pen-name, and Iles’ identity was kept secret, and much debated, for a couple of years (surely this wouldn’t be possible in the internet age?) before it was revealed that Iles was in fact Anthony Berkeley, a successful writer of innovative Golden Age detective novels, often featuring an amateur sleuth, Roger Sheringham, who was far from infallible. In turn, Anthony Berkeley was the main pseudonym used by Anthony Berkeley Cox, one of the most enigmatic of all crime writers.

The tone of the book is set in the famous opening paragraph:

“It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest step may be disastrous. Dr. Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.”

Bickleigh, henpecked by his wife Julia, is a meek fellow with an inferiority complex and Iles presents his increasingly dangerous behaviour with cynicism and wit:

“From what he had seen of marriage he did not doubt that most married men spend no small part of their lives devising wistful plans for killing off their wives – if only they had the courage to do it.”

Bickleigh reads de Quincey, and on the whole agrees with him:

“Murder could be a fine art: but it was not for everyone. Murder was a fine art for the superman. It was a pity that Nietzsche could not have developed de Quincey’s propositions. Dr Bickleigh had no doubt whatever that in murder he had qualified, not only as a fine artist, but as a superman.”

an edition tied to a 2005 adaptation with Ben Miller playing the doctor

an edition tied to a 2005 adaptation with Ben Miller playing the doctor

When the doctor becomes infatuated with an heiress, he resolves to do away with Julia, and the story of what happens next is fascinating . It’s also very cleverly plotted, so I must be careful not to give too much away. The story has been adapted for television a couple of times, most splendidly in the Seventies, with Hywel Bennett cast as Bickleigh.

I don’t’ know if Maxine ever read MALICE AFORETHOUGHT but I suspect that if she did, she found Iles’ writing as entertaining as his protagonist’s behaviour is reprehensible. In its day, the story was regarded as ground-breaking, with its focus on a murderer’s psychology rather than the process of detection. More than eighty years later, Iles’s masterpiece still reads well, and that, I think Maxine would have agreed, is as good a test as any of the quality of a crime novel.

Book Details:

author: Francis Iles (learn more via Martin Edwards’ essay on Anthony Berkeley or at the wikipedia page of Anthony Berkeley)
original language: English
publication date (UK): 1931

Contributor Details:

Martin Edwards is a practicing solicitor and crime writer with over 40 short stories and novels published. He blogs reviews and opinions related to crime writing, reading and watching at Do You Write Under Your Own Name? and his website is brimming with information about his own work and that of authors he admires.

And the winner is…

The Petrona Award trophy (image courtesy of Emma  Buckley and Euro Crime)

The Petrona Award trophy (image courtesy of Emma Buckley and Euro Crime)

At CrimeFest this weekend the winner of the inaugural Petrona Award for best Scandinavian crime fiction translated into English was announced as Liza Marklund’s LAST WILL, translated by Neil Smith. To celebrate the win we’re posting Maxine Clarke’s original review of the novel which was first run at her blog in May 2012. We’re sure that once you’ve read the review you’ll be itching to find a copy of the book.

LAST WILL is a fantastic, intelligent crime thriller, containing all the elements I love about the genre. Annika Bengtzon is a crime reporter for the Evening Post, a tabloid newspaper. She’s attending the annual Nobel banquet for the paper, a formal ceremony in which the new laureates dine with the Swedish royal family and assorted dignitaries. Annika is dancing with another reporter when shots are fired – the laureate for medicine and the head of the Nobel committee are hit. Because Annika is a witness, the senior police investigator “Q” slaps a non-disclosure order on her under terrorist legislation.

Annika’s boss is only too keen to find an excuse to keep her away from the office for a while, so she agrees to a period of paid leave. She and Q go back a long way, however, so she keeps up with the investigation, soon realising that the official solution as reported in the papers is a long way from the real truth of the events of that night. Annika also gets to know some of the biological scientists who work at the Karolinska Institute, finding out about their work and how the Nobel prizes are decided upon each year.

LastWillMarklundLiza15232_fDuring this time, Annika moves house into a rural suburb just outside Stockholm, using the money she was awarded in RED WOLF, the previous novel in the series. Annika’s marriage to the selfish, smug Thomas is on the rocks — though she is a devoted mother to her two young children and would not do anything to jeopardise their well-being. Thomas not only exploits Annika on the domestic front, but is becoming politically incompatible with her: he has moved from his original job in local government to a new position in the Ministry of Justice, helping to prepare stringent new anti-terrorist legislation that Annika finds appalling. Not only are things bad with Thomas, but Annika’s oldest friend Anne, who regular readers will know has gone through many ordeals with Annika in the past, has become increasingly unstable and unsympathetic as her own life and career implode, criticising Annika while at the same time sponging on her.

LAST WILL is by no means overwhelmed with domestic trivia, however. It is a clever, muscular thriller, combining exciting action with analyses of many contemporary issues: the dangers of security and terrorist legislation, in particular in the tragic case of a man accused of the Nobel atrocity; the plight of modern journalism and what proprietors do to survive in the internet era; the politics of the science profession and the scope for corruption by the financial interests of drug companies; some great descriptions of biological research; the ethics of scientific publication; and, underlying it all, a cracking, puzzling crime – why was the Nobel victim chosen, who was behind the events of that night, and what is the relationship between the first and subsequent crimes? None of these themes is treated as a cliché or in any predictable way; each is attacked with a fresh perspective by the author, abetted by Annika’s characteristic refusal to compromise.

One of the strengths of this novel is the author’s ability to convey vividly the stresses of modern parenthood and family life, from apparently trivial incidents with difficult neighbours to dangerous events between school “friends”. Without overdoing it, many of the elements in the story turn out to be either related or to have a direct impact on the climactic events towards the end.

I can’t recommend this novel too highly. This series has always been one of my very favourites, but here the author has surpassed herself with a great story, some intriguing historical elements, and convincing human interest – Annika’s dilemmas as a mother, wife and dedicated professional journalist are conveyed in a completely convincing manner that had me rooting for her at the end when she is forced to make a critical decision. And the crime plot is as solid and multi-layered as any I’ve read, as Annika’s tenacity and courageous nature force her to try to uncover what’s really going on. Neil Smith’s translation is remarkably natural, matching the author’s message with perfection. This novel is going to be hard to beat as my crime novel of the year.

This review was first published at Petrona in May 2012

Book Details:

author: Liza Marklund
original language: Swedish
translator: Neil Smith
publication date (UK): 2012

Contributor Details:

Maxine Clarke was the passionate crime fiction reader, reviewer and advocate who inspired this site and the Petrona Award itself