review · Switzerland · Translated

The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

the pledgeThe Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, translated by Joel Agee

Originally published as Das Versprechen, 1958

Berkley Boulevard, 2000

I picked up The Pledge where it’s been languishing on my bookshelves for at least a couple years because it’s short, because of a fairly recent rave review from Jose Ignacio, and because the subtitle, Requiem for the Detective Novel, was intriguing.  It’s a smart book with an effective ending, but because its a novella, I don’t want to say too much about the story.

The crime at the center of the story is the murder of a very young girl. Inspector Matthäi leads the obsessive investigation of her murder, and Dr. H, the retired policeman narrating the story, was his old boss. To add yet another level of the story-within-a-story, Dr. H. tells his story to the unnamed narrator who is a mystery novelist.

An excerpt from the beginning of Dr. H’s conversation with our unnamed narrator gives a clear idea of what to expect from this story:

No, what really bothers me about your novels is the story line, 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 of the police are forced to proceed logically, scientifically; but there is so much interference, so many factors mess up our clear schemes, that success in our business very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favor. Or against us. (p. 8)

I’m not sure that crime novels of Dürrenmatt’s days were always so tidy, but I admit I haven’t read enough older books to make an accurate assessment. I can definitely think of a few crime novels and crime shows that rely heavily on logic without dealing with luck, but it’s not something I see or read about a lot.

But besides the critique of detective stories, this is a story of a horrible crime, and it affects  the investigators quite profoundly as well. The tone is very dry, and the impact is quite strong. This is one of my favorite reads of the year, and it’s definitely a book that makes for interesting discussions.

I bought my copy of the book.

The Pledge is a book that’s received lots of positive reviews around the blogosphere. Here is an incomplete list: Avid Mystery Reader, Mrs. Peabody Investigates, My Place for Mystery, Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.

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10 thoughts on “The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

  1. Apparently the book was a reaction to the movie Es Geschah am Hellichten Tag (1958), on which Dürrenmatt was principal screenwriter. The producers insisted on the movie having a “happy” ending, with the murderer caught an’ all, an artificial tidying-up that Dürrenmatt resented — hence the tone of the novel.

  2. I enjoyed this one a lot (and thanks for the linkage). He has some short stories as well that are acclaimed and I read “The Judge and His Hangman” and it was pretty good. I think Jose Ignacio read it, too. The second short story in the collection wasn’t all that great and I didn’t finish it.

    1. Thanks for the info, and for pointing me to this book/author in the first place. I definitely like to read short pieces every once in awhile, and his stories seem very good as well as smart, which I appreciate.

  3. I was glad to see your review of this, I have wanted to read the book because of the movie with Jack Nicholson. On the other hand I haven’t seen that movie because I felt the subject matter was too difficult, so was not sure whether to try this book or not. An approach-avoidance situation. Your review has encouraged me to try the book. I don’t know how I missed Jose Ignacio’s post but it also provides information I was not aware of. So thanks a lot for this review.

    1. I’m interested in the movie as well, but it would be hard to watch, definitely. I felt more distance from the book than I would a film, which helps. Thanks for your comment, Tracy. There are lots of interesting pieces about this book and Durrenmatt to dig into online.

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