Fifty pages from the end of Flanders Sky, by Nicolas Freeling, I closed it and put it down. I will never know who murdered Iris. I will never know if her sexual-harasser, rape-fantasist husband will face just desserts, if not for the murder, for his other behavior. I only know that I cannot float in this venomous stew of misogyny any longer. It’s rare for me to set aside a murder mystery, but I will not subject myself to any more of this.
Nicolas Freeling was the author of the Van der Valk detective series, set mostly in Amsterdam, and the Henri Castang mysteries, set in various European countries. (Flanders Sky, published as The Pretty How Town in the UK, is a Castang mystery.) Freeling, who died in 2003, published over 30 novels, and started his career in the early 1960s. This book was published in 1992.
Freeling was British but spent many of his young adult years in Europe, working in restaurant kitchens. In terms of style and the issues he takes on, I’d guess Freeling falls into the Frederick Forsyth group. I’d guess he was influenced by Ian Fleming, and while Flanders Sky mentions many of the political issues that John le Carre’s thrillers delve into, Freeling lacks the philosophy, knowledge or curiosity of le Carre.
Henri Castang is, or was, a police detective in Paris. In the book before this one, he uncovered something politically inconvenient, so he’s been “promoted” and banished to Brussels, where he’s assigned to a multinational political group. Although it’s never named, it seems like this group might serve the people creating the European Union. (Or they might be those people. Can’t tell.) The backdrop is the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Velvet Revolution, and other European changes. Henri’s interest is slightly more than academic; his wife Vera is a Slovakian—a former gymnast who defected in Paris, and now, for the first time, can visit her homeland.
(Just a prelude to coming issues: Castang continually refers to his Slovakian wife as a Czech.)
Henri’s new boss, Harold Claverhouse, is apparently some sort of genius. He’s British. He sexually harasses every woman in the office. He provokes his male workers by making racist remarks and watching their responses. He vocally, as a matter of course, imagines raping women who work in the office, or who he sees on the street. He almost immediately tells Henri that he’s got the hots for Vera. Henri is forced to set some boundaries. After he does that, Harold comes to the house uninvited, and pays a lot of (courteous) attention to Vera, which Henri interprets as an indirect apology to him. (Vera says, “I thought he was making a pass at me.” You decide.)
Harold is married to an attractive Anglo-Irish woman named Iris. Suddenly, Iris is strangled to death, alone in the house, wearing only a housecoat. The back door is unlocked but not open, and Harald, coming home from work late after a few drinks, finds the body. Harold is taken into custody and held but not charged. This is a tragedy. Not about Iris—no one really seems to care much about her–but for the office, because it’s a big political embarrassment.
Victims in mysteries, especially thrillers by men, are often female, and being dead they have no voice. The minimizing of Iris, alone, could be bearable. As Flanders Sky progresses, though, and two more plotlines emerge, recurring themes about women emerge too, and Freeling uses the voices of his few women characters, particularly Vera, to support and amplify a view of women that dovetails perfectly with the opinions the male characters have. And those opinions are repulsive.
Yes, the book was written in the 1990s, and yes, I am reading it from a 21st century perspective. There were plenty of male writers in the 90s who weren’t doing espousing these attitudes. And I find it interesting that I can read writers like Dickens and say, “This is historical,” but the level of objectifying women is so high in this 90s, low-end-of-middle-brow thriller that I can’t make that jump.
But let me go on.
Three misogynistic themes develop:
1) Creating a defense for Harold, Henri, two male and one female lawyer hypothesize that maybe Harold staggered home drunk and wanted to have sex, and Iris refused him. In fact, she probably even said “No” in a harsh manner. Or maybe she was even verbally mean to him! In a moment of drunken rage, he throttled her to keep her quiet. Anyone could understand that, right? Plainly, this is meant to be somewhat cynical, but still, at the end of this passage, all four people in the room agree that “He had to shut her up,” is an acceptable defense. And they accept it.
2) A subplot involves a non-profit teen center Henri volunteers at. Two girls, about the ages of his own daughters, come in, saying they’ve run away from their home in a village outside Ghent because their father beats them. So very much goes wrong here, plotwise, that I won’t even address all of it, but Henri sends them home. Once home, the younger girl (who isn’t even named in the story) kills her father with a kitchen knife, since he routinely rapes the older sister and the little sister wants it to stop.
Now, Henri conjures up the story of the mother in this family, who has never before this been mentioned. She works long hours at a local hospital, which Henri thinks might be hard work. A couple of times a week, she has drinks with her mates before she comes home from work. From this, Henri concludes that she is responsible for the neglect, the incest and the murder. In particular, Henri uses this phrase in discussing the mother, “She wouldn’t have wanted to find her own daughter promoted to wife-status.”
Promoted to wife-status. The problem isn’t that the father assaulted his daughter, stole her autonomy, her innocence and her childhood. No, it’s that the power differential in the household might change.
Later, Freeling doubles down on the idea that kids getting raped (by their parents) isn’t a big deal when he has Vera, in her narrative, say, “Do I seem hard? Young girls do get sexually abused. That is appalling, but it is also an historical constant.”
This entire subplot seems to exist mainly to introduce a young woman Henri calls Merieke, who had an affair with Harold.
3) Henri routinely sends Vera to visit Harold in jail. Harold, still not actually charged, has a lot of privilege, and visits take place in a private room, with no guard present. Vera brings him clean clothes, books and some music CDs. When, helping her husband, she presses Harold about his affair, he responds by asking her to take off her clothes, and telling her he needs to make love to her. Vera refuses, but she does not leave. She does not leave. Harold does not attack her, taking refuge in words. He comes up close to her as she is getting ready to leave, but Vera assures the reader that she isn’t afraid; she knows Harold won’t hurt her.
It’s this type of propaganda that I had the most trouble with. This is a male writer, one who uses rape repeatedly as a simile or recurring image in his book, making a female character assure us that she knows the man who just tried to coerce her into stripping for his pleasure won’t hurt her. This is a lie. Every single woman knows that, in the situation with that kind of a man, she is at high risk for getting hurt. It’s one thing for Vera to be tough and believe she can handle herself; it’s another thing entirely to use the character of Vera as apologist for rape-fan Harold.
(Earlier in the book, Vera tells us that every wife has had a moment when she thought her husband might rape her. It’s just married life, she implies.)
She not only doesn’t leave, later she comes back. Vera is acting as an investigator, a proxy for her husband… an unpaid investigator, the one assuming all the risk. As a tactic to get Harold to open up about the affair, she says this:
“I’m sorry to have behaved so badly, last time. I apologize.”
For what? For not
taking off her clothes? For exercising free will?
This was the point where repugnance overwhelmed curiosity and interest. I’ve left out Henri’s cat-and-mouse game with a female spy who approaches him. He gets the drop on her with his pistol, and tells her to take off her clothes, presumably so he can see that she isn’t carrying hidden weapons. She refuses, but his order “cleared the air,” he tells us. Hahaha! See, we’re just role-playing Ian Fleming here! No harm, no foul, right?
Normally, I would just get rid of the book and determine not to read anything else by this guy, but I got to thinking. Freeling was a popular writer, and the Castang stories at least are spy-thriller light, a genre read as frequently by women as men. Not only was Freeling reassuring men that their entitlement to any woman they wanted, when they wanted her, was normal and fine… he was telling women the same thing, and using women characters to do it. This was insidious.
I think I’m a better reader now than I was in 1992. I hope so. I hope as a society we have grown beyond these kinds of shenanigans. But this kind of brainwashing are, and were, part and parcel of what some people call rape culture. I will actively warn people off this book and this writer. (NOTE: the PBS adaptation of Van Der Valk is updated and does not ooze misogyny and male entitlement.) By warning them off, I will never learn who truly killed Iris, and I can live with that.