Nicolas Freeling

Prolific novelist and crime writer whose Van der Valk detective stories made his reputation

Philip Purser
Tuesday July 22, 2003
The Guardian

The novelist Nicolas Freeling, who has died aged 76, was best known for his Van der Valk detective stories and the two television series they inspired.

He was the most thoroughly European of British crime writers. In addition to the Amsterdam detective Piet Van der Valk, whom he rashly killed off in 1972, he created a series of novels based on the more reflective provincial French Inspector Henri Castang. He also wrote exceptional, often underrated, single novels, again set in Europe. He published 37 works of fiction in all, and four miscellaneous works.

Freeling's cosmopolitanism owed much to his upbringing. Though he was born in London of English parents, the surname on his mother's side, which he adopted, was said to have come from the German or Dutch Vrieling. The twice-married Anne Freeling Davidson was, by turns, an ardent communist, an ardent Catholic and an Irish romantic. The family lived in Brittany for some years, then in Southampton. At the outbreak of the second world war, Anne took her children off to the neutral Irish Free State, much to the chagrin of Nicolas, then 12. His parents finally parted during this period.

After the war, Freeling dropped out of university, yearned to write, bummed around the south of France, worked in restaurants and discovered a talent for cooking. He said he preferred the kitchen because you did not have to be nice to the customers. On one occasion, while working as the senior chef in an Amsterdam hotel, he was arrested and locked up on suspicion of involvement, as a foreigner, in the city's thriving underworld. Intrigued by the worldly-wise detective who interrogated him, he smoothed out sheets of paper salvaged from his prison job of wrapping soap, and started to write a story featuring such an operator.

Eventually, he was deported, along with his Dutch wife Renée. But back in Britain, he found the impetus to finish Love In Amsterdam, as he called his story, and had the luck to meet an agent who placed it. When it was published in 1962, he became a professional writer, returning to Amsterdam to breathe the local atmosphere for more Van der Valk stories. The television Van der Valks emerged around 1970 - with Frank Finlay in West German adaptations of Freeling's stories, and Barry Foster (obituary, February 12 2002) in the popular Thames Television series that deployed his characters in newly-devised episodes by other hands.

The now prosperous Freelings bought a grand and romantic, if dilapidated, house at Grandfontaine, in the Vosges, France. But the move led to a massive hiccup in Freeling's career when he killed off Van der Valk. Ostensibly, this was because he was no longer in touch with the shifting fads of attitude and slang in Amsterdam. In truth, he was tired of the tyranny of having to write the same story over and over again.

Fans were outraged and, in Sweden and France, Freeling ceased to be published. But he resisted the temptation to restore his hero to life, compromising instead with the introduction, in The Widow (1979), of Van der Valk's widow Arlette, now settled in Strasbourg with a second husband, as a kind of unofficial social investigator. By then, Freeling had already launched Castang, his detective replacement for Van der Valk, whose canon many critics would come to hold superior. Among the single novels of this period lurked the nuclear thriller Gadget.

These departures all needed time to find a readership. The house at Grandfontaine became too expensive to heat, and for all but the summer months, the family had to squeeze into a rented flat in Strasbourg. In due course, earnings recovered, and they were able to settle down in their own home.

The books continued to flow. Over the years, Freeling won the three most prestigious awards for crime writing: the French Grand Prix de Roman Policier, the American Edgar Allan Poe Award and the British Crime Writers' Golden Dagger. But the question remained as to whether he was really a crime writer or a straight novelist who chose to use crimes as a forcing house in which to examine questions of personality, propensity, even national characteristics, under abnormal conditions.

Despite his professed aversion to autobiography, Freeling referred to himself and his work in two widely separated works of non-fiction, The Kitchen Book (1970) and The Village Book (2001). In the latter, he claimed that all fiction (with the possible exception of Jane Austen's) is propelled by crime or misdemeanour.

In his late life novels, he brilliantly demonstrated the force of that argument. In One More River (1998), for example, he begins with a semi-retired author - much like himself - relaxing in a garden, much like his own. An unknown sniper takes a pot shot at him, and the ensuing investigation leads to the uncovering of ancient betrayals and guilts.

Some Day Tomorrow (1999) was the guarded testament of a retired Dutch plantsman recuperating from a prostatectomy, but still randy. Did he kill a young woman whose body was found in the sand-dunes? Without offering a firm answer, Freeling swept the reader along to a terrifying and very Dutch solution. His last novel, The Janeites (2002), was even more enigmatic: a complex triangle of love and vengeance, in which two of the participants were also devoted to the healing power of reading the works of Jane Austen.

Freeling is survived by his wife, four sons and a daughter.

· Nicolas Freeling, writer, born March 3 1927; died 20 July 2003