The Inspector Barlach Mysteries

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The Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt is perhaps best known as a playwright, but among his other writing is a number of detective novels, including the two collected here by the University of Chicago Press, The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951), both translated by Joel Agee. You will frequently see them described as ‘philosophical’ detective fiction, as Durrenmatt uses the form to explore issues of morality, but if you also take this to mean that they are in any way lacking as examples of the genre you would be mistaken. The Judge and his Hangman is a carefully constructed puzzle in which layer upon layer of mystery is unravelled until only in the final pages do we understand the truth. Suspicion is a bleaker, more direct novel, where tension rather than mystery is Durrenmatt’s main weapon as he places his protagonist in more jeopardy than in perhaps any other crime novel I have read.

Inspector Barlach is a detective in the Maigret tradition: unsympathetic, largely closed to the reader, pursuing his investigation without either consulting or confiding in others. He is approaching both retirement and death. “The old inspector,” his boss, Lutz, says of him at one point, “…is, admittedly, somewhat rusty.” His imminent mortality is a less likely trait, with most writers keen to invest in a long-running series rather than a couple of short novels. It is revealed in the novel’s central scene when Barlach confronts the man implicated in his current case, the murder of a police officer:

“You’ll have to hurry up Barlach…You don’t have much time. The doctors give you another year if you let them operate on you now.”

It is in this conversation with Gastman that we discover their relationship dates back forty years when, as a result of Barlach’s proposition that to commit a crime “is an act of stupidity,” Gastman vowed to do so in his presence without Barlach being able to prove that he did it.

“Three days later… we were crossing the the Mahmoud Bridge with a German merchant and you pushed him into the water in front of my eyes.”

Barlach has been hunting him ever since, giving the novel a Sherlock / Moriarty feel, with Barlach’s solution revealing the moral ambiguity at the heart of crime and punishment, the novel’s title noticeably referring only to judgement and retribution rather than truth and justice.

The second novel, Suspicion, begins just after Barlach’s operation as he recovers in hospital. As he glances through old copies of Life magazine, his doctor, Hungertobel, turns pale; when Barlach presses him, he admits that he thought he recognised a picture of notorious concentration camp doctor, Nehle. However, he quickly dismisses his suspicions as ridiculous: the man he thought it was, Emmenberger, was in Chile at the time, and Nehle is known to have committed suicide after the war. Barlach defends his suspicions:

“Even if it’s a crime to think what we’re thinking, let’s not be afraid of our thoughts. How can we overcome them – presuming they’re wrong – unless we examine them, and how can we do that unless we admit them to our conscience?”

While the novel begins in traditional detective mode, with Barlach uncovering a number of clues that Emmenberger might be Nehle, it changes tone when he decides to have himself admitted to Emmenberger’s clinic, an undercover operation that is in fact a confrontation between good and evil. Anyone who has experienced the powerlessness of being a hospital patient, even under 21st century conditions, will quickly identify with the danger Barlach has placed himself in by challenging Emenberger (including paying a journalist to publish a story alluding to the connection). The atmosphere of the scenes which take place in clinic have more in common with the horror genre than the detective with their use of the grotesque and ‘trust no-one’ trope.

I would highly recommend these novels (especially in this handy one volume format) to anyone who enjoys detective fiction, but I don’t feel a love of the genre is a prerequisite: these are the kind of detective novels which demonstrate the way the form can be used to examine morally complex issues while remaining a page-turning read.

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14 Responses to “The Inspector Barlach Mysteries”

  1. jacquiwine Says:

    I’d never heard of Durrenmatt until you mentioned him earlier this week. Straight on the list, Grant, no question. They sound very thought-provoking, too.

  2. MarinaSofia Says:

    I had to read Durrenmatt for my German A Levels equivalent, but it was always his plays rather than his novels. I love these books – I’ll be reading Suspicion soon for German Lit Month, after having reread The Judge and His Hangman earlier this year. Don’t know if you might care to read my review of it on Crime Fiction Lover:

    • 1streading Says:

      I very much enjoyed your review of The Judge and his Hangman and look forward to your thoughts on Suspicion. I love the American cover you have used for the review – not sure how accurate it is though! Now that I’ve read Durrenmatt, I can’t believe how little known he is – though I have also discovered a number of diehard fans.

      • MarinaSofia Says:

        Isn’t it just gloriously pulpy! I have a boring German, mostly white but with a small detail from a sketch by Durrenmatt called ‘Animal’ – featuring the dog of the story, I suppose.

  3. Caroline Says:

    I read these in school and I remmeber I liked them very much. I never thought of them as genre novels. There’s a crime but the moral implications are far more important, as you say. It can really be enjoyed by anyone, even those who don’t normally like crime.
    I’m sorry for being so late to your posts. I liked them very much and liked your choices.

    • 1streading Says:

      You’re absolutely right. This was my favourite discovery of German Literature Month – I’m so glad I read it!
      There’s been so many great posts this month I’ve struggled to comment on all but a few, so I very much appreciate you stopping by.

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