#21 Friedrich Dürrenmatt / The Pledge (first review of Swiss crime!)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge (Das Verbrechen), translated by Joel Agee (London: Penguin, 2001 [1958]). A master-class in crime writing that doubles as a meditation on obsession and the impossibility of closure 5 stars

 Opening sentence:  Last March I had to give a lecture in Chur on the art of writing detective stories.

There are very few crime novels that I keep coming back to, but The Pledge is one of them. Written over half a century ago in 1958, it’s one of three crime novels by the renowned Swiss dramatist and writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt (the others are The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951)). The Pledge is my favourite of the three, for its fine writing and penetrating critique of the crime genre. Its tantalising subtitle is Requiem auf den Kriminalroman or ‘Requiem for the crime novel’.

The Pledge tells the story of Swiss police inspector Matthäi, who just is clearing his desk prior to a secondment in Jordan when a young girl’s murder is reported. After breaking the news to the girl’s parents, Matthäi is asked by the mother to promise on his ‘eternal salvation’ that he will find the murderer, and this, after a brief hestitation, he does: the pledge of the title. Thus begins a long investigation, which eventually tips over into a personal obsession that will threaten Matthäi’s sanity (making him one of the most sympathetic investigative figures in the genre).

Matthäi’s tale is told to the figure of ‘the author’ by Dr. H, a former chief of police in Zurich, who was also once Matthäi’s boss. Dr. H is prompted to recount the story after attending the author’s talk on writing detective fiction, as a means of highlighting the ‘lies’ peddled by his work:

‘What really bothers me about your novels is the storyline, the plot. There the lying just takes over, it’s shameless. You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: here’s the criminal, there’s the victim, here’s an accomplice, there’s a beneficiary. And all the detective needs to know is the rules: he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy. You can’t come to grips with reality by logic alone. Granted, we police are forced to proceed logically, scientifically; but there is so much interference, so many factors mess up our schemes that success very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favour. […] But you fellows in the writing game don’t care about that. You don’t try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a manageable world. That world may be perfect, but it’s a lie.’

So it’s the disjunction between the controlled fictions produced by ‘the author’ and the frustrating ‘reality’ of Matthäi’s troubled investigation that is the catalyst for Dr. H’s narrative – a wonderful ‘frame story’ that cheekily critiques the very genre the novel employs and implicitly wags a finger at all crime fiction fans for buying into its fantasy world.

As if all of this wasn’t clever enough, Dürrenmatt manages to have his cake and eat it too, by relating a story that thematises the impossibility of absolute closure and justice, but also provides the reader with a satisfying resolution in line with the expectations of the genre. Although of course, that could just be ‘the author’ meddling with the tale Dr. H told him…

The novel was adapted for film in 2001, directed by Sean Penn and with Jack Nicholson in the lead role. I have a copy on DVD which I mean to watch very soon! A highly positive Guardian review is available here.

Mrs Peabody awards The Pledge an ever-so-classy 5 stars.

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23 thoughts on “#21 Friedrich Dürrenmatt / The Pledge (first review of Swiss crime!)

  1. Sounds fascinating, Mrs P. It’s going on my list. I enjoyed Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser, also Swiss but written about 20 years before The Pledge. I meant to go back and read more of Glauser (a fasciating but tragic life-story) but for some reason have not. He’s published by Bitter Lemon in the UK. The Pledge sounds as if it may have one or two similarities. Not so sure about the Penn/Nicholson film, though!

    • Aha! I’m a big fan of Glauser too. And you’re right, there are definitely connections. Glauser’s In Matto’s Realm explores the thin line between sanity and madness, and was pretty groundbreaking for the time (as you probably know it’s set in a psychiatric institution). I picked up all the German originals for a song as an ebook, so those are lined up for the next few months. I’m looking forward to seeing the Penn film – will let you know how it pans out!

  2. Mrs. P – I’d heard of this before but I’ve never read it. I will have to rectify that soon as it sounds like an excellent novel with a fascinating look at crime fiction wrapped within the plot. I always enjoy it when the author is able to take a “bird’s eye view” on the genre like that.

    • Thanks, Margot – yes, I like those more self-reflexive novels too. Perhaps we can compile a little list (or maybe there’s one out there already?). You quite often see a detective telling another character that ‘it’s not like you read in crime novels’, but more as a clever little aside than anything else. I’m not quite sure how many go as far as FD. Will definitely keep an eye out.

  3. Great reviews of a great book Mrs P! I recently re-read THE JUDGE AND HIS HANGMAN and was again bowled over by its intelligence and power. I ended up getting the 1975 German movie version made by Maximilian Schell, which the author not only co-write but has a major supporting role in – I’m going to post a proper review on my blog on Tuesday but I found it, shall we say, highly idiosyncratic (and in fact downright peculiar at times) …

    • Thanks, Cavershamragu! I didn’t realise there was a film of that earlier novel, or that FD had been up on the silver screen. I’ll look forward very much to reading your review on Tuesday.

  4. I read the book for Kerrie’s Crime on a Euro Pass. I enjoyed the book. It led me to reflect on carrying out promises. I will be interested in what you think of the movie. I have not seen it. When I looked up information on the movie after reading the book I found it had been filmed in Canada.

    • Thanks for your comment, Bill. Yes, absolutely: the power of the promise and the obligations it places on the individual. I found the moment M makes the promise in the novel very interesting, and of course there is that extra religious dimension to it as well.

      I’ll be sure to report back on the film. I have quite high hopes for it based on the couple of reviews I’ve read: hopefully it will live up to that promise (no pun intended!).

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    • Really glad you you enjoyed it – he’s quite the master-storyteller, isn’t he 🙂

      I’ve read it a number of times now, and even knowing the plot, it just gets better each time.

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  11. I first came across Friedrich Duerrenmatt when I saw Der Richter und sein Henker in a charity shop in Cardiff. I speak German as my second language so I was intrigued, not only because I had not heard of the author, but also because he was described as almost a genius on the back cover, which I thought rather amusing–either he is or he isn’t. I have to say I was bowled over by the book–the power of Duerrenmatt’s writing and imagination. I soon followed it up with Suspicion and The Pledge, both in the original German–he is not difficult to read. He brings the skill of a dramatist in scene setting to the telling of a story in novel form. His plots I would describe as highly original situations which stretch the reader’s imagination rather than pose ‘who dunnit?’ like puzzles. Not quite a genius , perhaps, but a great and unforgettable writer.

    • Thanks for your comment, Paul. It’s great to hear about your Duerrenmatt reading experiences. The power of his writing really has endured. I find myself drawn back to The Pledge every year or so – and it always seems fresh and radical, particularly in terms of how it subverts genre conventions. A class act!

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