BOOK REVIEW / Bodies everywhere: 'The Pretty How Town' - Nicolas Freeling: Little, Brown, 13.99

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The Independent Online
YOU'VE read it maybe 30 times before, almost always with pleasure. A middle-aged policeman, whose brutal competence conceals an almost fey familiarity with Scots and Belgian poetry, drives the mean streets of a European town. The crimes he must solve are realistically squalid, but he gets a great deal out of them: as far as he is concerned, a crime is solved once the criminal has been not merely identified, but understood.

All that distinguishes the policeman from the people he arrests is that he keeps his own romanticism under lock and key.

He is not glamorous. Some years ago he would have been driving a Volkswagen or a Peugeot, but now he drives 'a Mercedes'. It's the accents that give Nicolas Freeling away every time. Only he would put the French accents on a German car in an English novel.

It would not be nearly as maddening if he weren't so good as well. He has an extraordinary talent for description, both in a sentence or two - 'This is the real thing. This colossal empty space bitter with draughts' - and over the course of a whole book, as in the provincial Dutch town of Criminal Conversation or the Strasbourg of The Dresden Green.

He can do people, too: 'A long pointed nose, long shaved jaw. Delicate hands fiddled with a Dunhill cigarette, despising it even if the adverts do say it is Best. With a courteous manner and a quiet voice he came straight to his subject.'

In the realistic depiction of crime, Freeling has few peers. He gets all the important things right about the discovery: the shock, and at the same time an extraordinary lack of drama; the pre-eminence of brute fact.

There is a scene in his new novel, The Pretty How Town, when the hero, an off-duty policeman, goes to check out the site of a murder before the real police get there - before, in fact, they even know. It is the sort of thing that private detectives have done a million times. Reading Freeling's version, you can see what all the others have done wrong. This is how it might really happen.

He understands police procedure, too: the irrelevance of 'detection'; the importance of interrogation and coincidence. This is not a kind of trainspotter's understanding, but one rooted in a knowledge of human nature, showing at once the necessity and the limits of police routines, and the transformation of suffering into bureaucratic detail.

So on every external, on all the counts that matter, Freeling is more than very good: he is first-rate.

Why, then, does one flinch a little from his company? Why does one feel it is enough to have read 20 or so of his books, and not all of them?

It is the tone of voice. At any moment, any of Freeling's characters is likely to start hectoring the reader with the monotonous urgency of an afternoon drunk. When they fall into this mood they all sound the same, no matter who they are supposed to be.

The character may be a Czech gymnast, temporarily crippled by a fall after defecting to France and marrying a policeman there; a Dutch policeman of working-class stock; an English sociologist, or a temporary Brussels bureaucrat. No matter. The rhythms will be wrong. In an odd way. The sentences fragment in a way that resembles nothing but the thought

processes of another Freeling

character.

All his novels are as much about the detective as about the criminal, and his policemen are more closely attached to their professions than their roots. Almost all his characters, indeed, are wandering cosmopolitans, practising trades that will always be needed everywhere, and thus excluded from the lives of monoglot people. They all have interesting relations with bourgeois society, but nationalities exist only to be escaped from.

The Pretty How Town deals with this problem neatly, by examining the lives of the Eurocrats themselves - people with a specific society of their own, and the task of blurring everyone else's. So the Europe that is made from specific and highly differentiated cultures recedes from Freeling's grasp, and instead we get a homogenised smear, like Brussels-approved cheese. His characters even start to talk about Europe. When a Freeling policeman starts talking about Europe, it is enough to make the victim long for a clean bludgeoning with truncheons instead.

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