A Dangerous Game

In 1956 Friedrich Durrenmatt was arguably in the middle of his most important decade as a writer. He had begun the 1950s with his two Inspector Barlach mysteries, The Judge and his Hangman and Suspicion, and had just written one of his most famous plays, The Visit. Soon he would go on to write The Physicists and the novel he described as a “requiem for the detective novel,” The Pledge. In the meantime he wrote A Dangerous Game (included in Picador’s 1985 The Novels of Friedrich Durrenmatt, though not really long enough even for a novella) which also explores ideas of guilt and justice.

A Dangerous Game begins with a first part which is really a preface from the author, asking the question, “Are there any feasible stories still left for writers to write?” In his answer we begin to understand Durrenmatt’s attraction to the crime genre:

“And in our modern world there are only one or two feasible stories left, in which the fundamental nature of man can still be glimpsed in an ordinary face: in which some trifling misfortune accidentally impinges on the universal: and in which righteousness, justice, and perhaps even grace, are still made manifest, caught for a fleeting instant in the monocle of a drunken old man.”

The story proper begins when a travelling salesman, Alfredo Traps (it has also been translated as The Trap) finds himself stuck for the night after his Studebaker breaks down. The inn is full but he is directed towards a private house where a retired judge invites him to stay, asking only that he join him, and his friends, for dinner. This was not what Traps had planned (he is, we know by now, an inveterate womaniser) but he feels he cannot refuse. Predicting a dull evening, he is intrigued to be asked to take part in their game – one of trying either famous figures from history or, if they are lucky, “it was most fun when they were able to play with living material.”

“His host pointed out that they already had the judge, the prosecutor and the counsel for the defence – posts which in any case required knowledge of the subject and the rules of the game. Only the post of defendant was unoccupied.”

Traps is enthusiastic about taking the role. His defending counsel immediately recommends that Traps confess his crime but, of course, Traps points out that he is innocent:

“Mark my words, young friend… innocence doesn’t matter one way or the other. Tactics are what count.”

For Traps, the game is merely a lark. He happily tells the others about his life despite repeated warnings from his defending counsel to “Watch your step” and be “Careful.” His innocence is shown when, after telling them about his success in achieving his current position, he comments, “Wait until the interrogation begins,” only to realise from the reaction of the others that it began they moment he started talking. In particular, they have focused on his claim that, in order to gain promotion, his superior had to be “got rid of” – a statement compromised further by the fact that the man is dead, albeit of a heart attack.

Throughout the rest of the dinner the prosecutor attempts to lure Traps into admitting some form of guilt. Traps’ enthusiastic naivety and misplaced arrogance gives the reader little faith that he will be able to outwit the older men. Much like a Roald Dahl story, we are torn between the rational expectation that the game is simply a geriatric entertainment, and acknowledging the underlying sense of dread. Where Durrenmatt departs from Dahl is that his intentions are philosophical. Clearly A Dangerous Game is a minor work but one which further reveals the author’s preoccupation with justice and guilt. As a short story it more than delivers: excruciatingly tense and with an ending which satisfies the reader by bridging between the naturalistic and the macabre.

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8 Responses to “A Dangerous Game”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I had hoped to get to this one too Grant, as I do love Durrenmatt’s work – sounds as tense and psychological as the others I’ve read!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It sounds like textbook Durrenmatt, a philosophical exploration of the complexities of justice and guilt. Thanks for the tip about that Picador edition of the novels…I may have to seek it out!

  3. MarinaSofia Says:

    This does ring a bell, but I must have read it a very long time ago. Have to find it again.

  4. Simon T (StuckinaBook) Says:

    Very intriguing!

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