Six Surprising Facts About Van der Valk Novelist Nicolas Freeling

If you think police detective Piet Van der Valk is unconventional, wait until you learn about his creator. From the prison sentence that started him on the Van der Valk novels, to his culinary prowess and more, meet the man behind the international best-selling Van der Valk book series.


  1. 1.

    He wrote recipes before he wrote crime

    Nicolas Freeling had a variety of careers before becoming a writer, from serving in the Royal Air Force after WW2 to working for many years as a sous chef. He traveled around southern France and then more widely in Europe, worked in restaurants and spa hotels, and discovered a real knack for cooking. (He bestowed this love of gastronomy onto Van der Valk’s wife, Arlette, a gourmet cook.)

    Freeling also published nonfiction early in his writing career, offering tales of the food and personalities from his restaurant days—they even include recipes. The Kitchen Book was published in 1970 and later reissued as The Kitchen and the Cook in 2002.

  2. 2.

    A prison sentence got him started on Van der Valk

    While working as an Amsterdam hotel chef in his mid-30s, Freeling was arrested for allegedly stealing food from the kitchen. A foreigner in police custody, he was also questioned about possible involvement in the city’s underground crime ring. The cynical detective who interrogated Freeling became the model for Piet Van der Valk.

    During his three-week prison sentence, Freeling actually began his first Van der Valk novel by writing on pieces of paper salvaged from his prison job wrapping bars of soap. Love in Amsterdam was published three years later in 1962.

  3. 3.

    He wrote a baker's dozen Van der Valk novels

    There are a remarkable 13 titles in the Van der Valk series written between 1962 and 1989—many international best sellers. Beginning with Love in Amsterdam and ending with Sand Castles, Freeling concocted crime stories involving suspicious double suicides, victims mown down by machine gun in their homes, teenage gangs on murderous prowl, and more for his dogged sleuth to investigate.

  4. 4.

    He produced 40+ books over 40 years

    After he tired of Van der Valk, Freeling had a second successful detective series published between 1974 and 1996. A total of 16 books featured a Brussels-based French police inspector, Henri Castang. A prolific writer, Freeling also wrote single novels, all set in Europe.

    He published almost 40 fiction titles alone, plus four nonfiction works including memoirs and essays. Freeling’s final crime story, The Janeites, was published in 2002, a year before his death at age 76.

  5. 5.

    He rejected the label of 'crime writer'

    Freeling was scornful of typical mystery fiction and his Van der Valk novels avoid any set formula. He preferred seeing himself as a “straight novelist” who used police investigations to explore human character, political corruption and social realities.

    Nonetheless, Freeling won three of the most coveted awards for crime writing. His Gun Before Butter, the third Van der Valk novel, won both the British Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger Award and the French Grand Prix de Littérateur Policière. The King of the Rainy Country, sixth in the Van der Valk series, then won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel in 1966.

  6. 6.

    More fans came with screen adaptations, and so did an ending

    Versions of the original Van der Valk stories have been produced for radio and film. 1962’s Love in Amsterdam was adapted as the 1968 film Amsterdam Affair, directed by Gerry O’Hara and starring Wolfgang Kieling as Van der Valk. Televised Van der Valks appeared in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. Frank Finlay starred in a West German adaptation; Barry Foster played the title role on British TV. The British show’s theme song (Eye Level by the Simon Park Orchestra) was wildly popular, released as a single, and reached number one on the UK charts for four weeks in 1973.

    Despite the growing fan base for Van der Valk and the prosperity that came with it, Freeling decided to abruptly abandon the character. By then, he had already launched stories featuring French detective Castang.

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