The Pledge

I first read Friedrich Durrenmatt for German Literature Month in 2014 when I discovered his two Inspector Barlach novels, turning again to his work the next year with the much stranger The Assignment. On at least one of those occasions, it was suggested how wonderful it would be if his novels were brought back into print in the UK, and that Pushkin Press’ Vertigo imprint would be a perfect match. Happily, this was one of those rare occasions where wishful chatter proved prophetic and Pushkin have recently reprinted both Barlach novels (The Judge and his Hangman and Suspicion) and his later detective novel, The Pledge, last seen in a film tie-in edition with Jack Nicholson on the cover.

The Pledge is subtitled a ‘Requiem for the Detective Novel’, and Durrenmatt sets out his case in a framing sequence in which a detective tells a crime novelist:

“…to be honest, I’ve never thought highly of detective novels and I rather regret that you, too, write them. It’s a waste of time.”

His complaint is not that the criminal is always brought to justice – a “fairy tale” he accepts as “morally necessary” while adding “for business reasons if nothing else” but the fact that:

“You set up your stories logically, like a chess game… all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the rules of the game and, checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed.”

His dispute is not simply with the genre but might be described as realism versus plot, or even life versus art. The framing device also creates two competing narrative voices – the writer, who narrates form the beginning, and the detective, in whose words the crime story is related, though presumably via the writer, who he tells at the end, “you can do what you want with this story,” raising the question of what he has done.

The story itself opens with Durrenmatt trotting out numerous tropes of the genre: the body of a young girl discovered in the woods; a maverick detective, Matthai, on his last case, a prime suspect who only he thinks is innocent. Even the promise he makes to the victim’s parents, the pledge of the title, is one we have seen many times before, thought here it is made only so he can escape from an encounter which makes him feel “feeble, helpless”:

“’It’s a promise, Frau Moser,’ the inspector said, impelled solely by the desire to leave this place.”

Matthai is leaving for a lucrative position in Jordan; a peddler arrested at the scene confesses – but he remains unconvinced the case is solved and his desire to uncover the truth becomes an obsession, even after he leave the police force. That he doesn’t understand his own obsession can be seen from the reason he gives for continuing:

“Assuming I’m right, assuming the murderer of Gritli Moser is still alive and free, wouldn’t other children be in danger?… If the possibility of such a danger exists… it’s the duty of the police to protect the children and prevent another crime.”

Later, however, he will use a child as bait in an attempt to catch the killer with little thought for the child’s safety.

As with the Inspector Barlach novels, Durrenmatt demonstrates his mastery of the detective genre on the surface while at the same time probing deeper, philosophical questions beneath. Here, Matthai’s arrogant assumption that he can interpret reality to a set of rules – the strength which has placed him “at the pinnacle of his career” (and is shown when he challenges a mob to take their suspect and hang him if they are certain he is guilty) – becomes the weakness which leaves him the broken man we meet at the beginning. By the time the crime is solved (and it is, of course, solved) he no longer cares.

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6 Responses to “The Pledge”

  1. BookerTalk Says:

    This seems very clever – to criticise the genre you’re using for your novel.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I remember thinking this sounded good when I saw it in the list of forthcoming releases from Pushkin Press earlier this year. Glad to hear that it didn’t disappoint! It’s often difficult to tell if a framing device is really necessary or just a gimmick, but there seems to be a valid point to it here.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound very good. Do you think this is a better entry point than the Barlach’s? I’m quite tempted by it.

    Crime is an incredibly flexible genre isn’t it? There’s so much you can do with it.

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