Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge (Das Verbrechen), tr. from the German by Joel Agee, Pushkin Press 2017 .
First line: 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 called in. 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 hesitation, 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’s 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.