Continuing in my reading crime spree (a lovely ambiguous way of putting it) I finished Love In Amsterdam by Nicolas Freeling (1927 – 2003). The novel was first published in 1962 and was the source for at least one film and two television series. It seems to me that this novel was read more frequently when the years began with 19– than in the contemporary times. I have to be honest and say that this is a difficult novel to review and rate. It makes sense that readers seem to be a bit polar opposite in their feelings toward it.
The difficulties in discussing this novel begin straightaway because this is a crime novel but the bulk of it is really a psychological non-thriller. Definitely a very slow-burn, as they say. Being honest, there were plenty of points that I would have given this, just barely, a weak 2-star rating. My reaction immediately upon finishing the novel was that it was a 4-star novel, for sure, and certainly the author is underrated and incredibly talented.
Truthfully, I strongly disliked all of the characters. Every one of these characters I could spend a paragraph or two complaining about – pointing out their flaws and the things about them that I found off-putting. For example, the main character, Martin is wretched with emotions and opinions and he is just generally lazy and self-centered. The deceased of the novel is absolutely horrible in that she is very toxic and rotten. All of the characters seem to lack morality on some level. Usually a lack of morals or a nasty ethics is a good thing in a crime novel, but here it just makes things slog on in a claustrophobic and uncomfortable manner. The characters hang on each other, as if there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. Similar feathers flocking together. Drawn to each other out of lethargy and stupidity – love and hate having nothing to do with it.
She blossomed on dramas and scenes, loved upheavals, denouncements, tremendous rages, weeping reconciliations. That kind of thing was her daily bread and butter. – pg. 16
I mean, thankfully, most people are not as extreme in these scenarios as this character is, but I am sure we have all met or known a person who seems to thrive on drama – creating it when there is none. Now, there are people who enjoy such theatrics, but on a lesser scale. Almost as if having any drama validates their lives or situations. Most of these people, I think, tend to just be exaggerative, acting overwrought about water cooler moments, so to speak. But the character who blossoms on great upheavals – of course becomes the murder victim, because the reader would think this sort of person developed dozens of tumultuous relationships that would result, maybe, in murder.
Yet, here we are: the police are focused on one gentleman, Martin, because there actually are no other suspects. Immediately, more or less, we are given to believe that the chief detective, Van Der Valk, believes in Martin’s innocence. However, throughout the entire novel, I was convinced that Van Der Valk was being duplicitous. I did not, and do not, trust him – not even after the last page was turned. Of course, throughout the novel the detective is very much a tertiary character. He is really nothing more than dialogue – a specifically stilted dialogue at that. We learn nothing about him; he remains more or less an empty concept with barely an outline. Again, I do not trust him.
The novel is divided, unequally, into three sections. The first seems choppy, but is readable. We meet some characters and its a bit difficult to believe how unlikeable so much of the novel is. Still, there is a little sleuthing, albeit very unique and immersive detecting. Martin is innocent, Van Der Valk also thinks so, except it seems like Van Der Valk is trying to make Martin “crack” and confess. Maybe he is just trying to see what Martin knows subconsciously. It is difficult to tell.
The second section is, obviously, the part that loses readers. If readers are going to quit or complain – it is definitely in this second section. It is such a slog. It repeats the entire history of the relationship between Martin and the deceased. The relationship, too, is hideously toxic. It is insanely claustrophobic and emotional and the characters really seem to dislike each other and just use each other – but only in a vague and lethargic manner. The cigars and gin are not spicy and sharp like in Red Harvest. Here, they are smog and lay heavy in the small crowded homes. Martin quotes stupid quotes from artists and writers. The characters fight about nothing. Obsession and stubbornness are on every page.
As I read this lengthy slog, I kept wondering why this was happening – both the chapters and words and also the in-story relationships. Why. Why any of this. Sure, it would be all right for an author to give us some background, to describe the characters by using their past narrative history. However, after all the gray and lethargic days and nights sitting drinking first coffee then liquor, and frequently noting the runners in the lady’s stockings, the matchboxes that are used to gesture with, its too much. It feels like no background story could be worth this.
On one hand, the two main characters are written as if they are in near-poverty. Neither has employment or works at well, anything other than being miserable. Yet, they seem to have an endless supply of liquor, cigars, coffees, etc. People in dire straits do not usually lounge around draped in armchairs, sprawled on carpeted floors, leisurely wandering around bedrooms. In other words, the characters ought to be eating snow and licking dirt for meals and yet they are acting like the lords and ladies of manor homes. The characters are utterly self-absorbed creatures. The best example is how the husband of the deceased character, Elsa, comes and goes and the characters seem to misinterpret his feelings and actions completely. As if the husband inhabits a parallel, but ultimately different world than they do. Do not get me wrong, the husband, too, has a bunch of hideous and unpleasant personality traits that make him as unlikeable as the lot of them.
Somehow, though, I made it out the other end of this middle third. Immediately, the novel was improved. The storyline picked up again and the action and intensity was reasonable and then the resolution. The last third is intense, relatively exciting, and interesting. As I said, though, I still do not trust the detective. I thought for certain in this last section he was going to show his true face and show that he was being deceptive. The odd thing about this is that I really do not like the main character. So the fact that I was worried and concerned about Martin’s case does not make a whole lot of sense to me. It is probably less that I was caring about Martin and more so I could not stand to have Van Der Valk be cruel.
The water of the Amsterdamse Vaart was shaking itself and rattling at the canal banks like a bored child in a playpen. – pg. 189
The setting and place do not play enough of a rôle in this novel as I, the judicial reader, think that they should. I think more descriptions of cold, ice, gray clouds would have suited this story. However, there is very little discussion of the location and setting whatsoever. Actually, there is a great deal of words in Dutch, German, French that pepper the whole story. (Allegedly, Martin is fluent in multiple languages, I guess.) But using all of these languages does not help situate the story. I wonder if that is how Amsterdam was (1960s) – a place known by the multi-lingual conversations.
“….but I haven’t the men to go nosing in every corner; we aren’t the FBI with a thousand judo experts and television hidden in a baker’s van. Not having all of this tripe means we have to use our brains, though.” – 198
I admit this quote from Van Der Valk had me chortle. The dig at USA FBI measures was delivered perfectly. Tongue-in-cheek, amphiboly sort of thing with no emotion or snark. True wit, I guess. Anyway, this is about Van Der Valk’s only good line in the novel. As I said above, readers are not really given anything about him. He remains an outline at best. Maybe the novel could have used more of him. Literally, more of him, rather than just whatever lines he was handing Martin all the time (see, I don’t trust Van Der Valk).
Anyway, this is a slow, slow-burning noir. It looks at unpleasant people and their obsessions and connections in their unhealthy relationship. Guilt and revenge and stubbornness are examined. That whole immensely tiring middle section of the novel is horrible to have to read through. However, once its read, it fits perfectly and makes the weight of the novel and gives the characters a reality that otherwise would not be there. It is a well developed investigation of what was a gross relationship. Why did this relationship exist? Was the murder, at the end of the day, just a form of entropy? Was it revenge? And, did the relationship end before or after the murder? There is a lot to sort through for those readers who do like pondersome, heavy novels.
The best scene in the novel is a series of about five pages in which Martin is returned to his prison cell after his examination with the state-hired Psychiatrist. Martin, for the only time in the novel, is at wit’s end. The guilt, imagination, worries, fantastical thinking, catastrophic thinking, rationalization, etc show Martin’s breakdown. Alone in his cell he, for once, seems to be engaged in introspection. One wishes he had been so introspective as he was smoking in the armchair of Elsa’s home the first few times. But this writing is what Freeling excels at. Its nearly perfect for this novel and would work in any sort of noir crime fiction. Its gripping and intense – even if Martin is no one’s hero. I am giving this novel three stars. It could deserve four, to be honest. But the brutality on the reader of that middle historical section is a very muddy slog – I say that knowing that there really was not another method to plot this storyline.