The Pledge – Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Imagine you are an established crime fiction author meeting by chance a former police chief who, during a long car drive over mountains and across valleys in Switzerland, tells you crime authors are getting it all wrong in their stories.
Would you then write a novel about the real-life story the police chief tells you, one that proves he’s right, and crime authors, basically, just a fanciful lot?
Well, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s imagined author does, and the result is ‘The Pledge’, a brilliant novella which, though declaredly setting out to criticise the genre, ends up being a superb, tension-filled story of crime and investigation. And madness.
I need to start at the beginning though: Friedrich Dürrenmatt was a Swiss dramatist and writer, who died in 1990 aged 69. He was an early proponent of ‘epic theatre’, of which Bertolt Brecht was the most influential author, and besides a host of successful plays, he wrote several novels, most of them with a crime fiction flavour, his own version of it at least.
As a (crime) writer, he was well ahead of his times. Think Henning Mankell meets Bret Easton Ellis, but writing, as is the case of ‘The Pledge’, in 1958, about thirty years before either. Dürrenmatt’s style is sharp, sombre and matter-of-fact like Mankell’s, and pared-down like Ellis’. Yet it also manages to be so visually intense that a few of his novels made a successful transition to the screen. ‘The Pledge’ was adapted several times both to TV and film, lately in 2001, starring Jack Nicholson directed by Sean Penn.
‘The Pledge’ is highly original in many ways, beginning with the unusual device of a narrator telling a story to the author. The novel was initially subtitled ‘Requiem for the Detective Novel’, as it also incorporates a critique of the detective novel as mechanistic writing, based on a strict formula whereby the lead investigator can ‘check-mate’ (Dürrenmatt’s own expression) the criminal by applying method and logic. Something which, as the story’s narrator Dr H., the former Zurich chief of police, unabashedly tells the author, is very far from real life, where instead pure luck, however skilful investigators may be, plays a major role in uncovering culprits.
So Dr H.’s story goes: Gritli, a young girl, the daughter of a local lumberjack, is found butchered in the woods close to a quiet Swiss mountain village. Inspector Matthäi of the Zurich police, a relentless, highly successful investigator who is one day short of retirement, takes on the case, for which there already is a suspect: Von Gunten, a travelling salesman, the man who discovered Gritli’s body, a weak, unctuous character with a previous conviction for child molestation. The case seems an open and shut one, and Matthäi simply hands it over to Henzi, the younger investigator who’s set to succeed him. After a twenty-hour interrogation, Von Gunten confesses to the crime. The following morning, as Matthäi makes his farewell visit to police headquarters, he learns that Von Gunten has committed suicide in his cell. It is the start of his obsession, one that will push him down the slippery slope to madness.
Matthäi was never fully convinced of Von Gunten’s guilt, and the dread that the real killer was still at large – two previous child murders seemed to indicate a serial pattern – leads him to put his life on hold and, independently of the authorities, seek the true murderer, on the assumption that Von Gunten was indeed innocent.
Matthäi is a unique character, the workings of whose mind Dürrenmatt portrays brilliantly. We learn of him and of his obsession, fuelled by the pledge he made to Gritli’s mother that he would find her daughter’s killer, through Dr H’s retelling, a way to lend the story an even more sinister, haunting feel. Matthäi is a solitary man, with no family and nothing else in his life but his work, at which he excels. He is stubborn and highly intelligent, and he is not afraid of going solo to keep his promise to Gritli’s mother.
‘The Pledge’ is much more than the story of Matthäi’s efforts to uncover a serial killer. It is also a chilling reminder that we are ultimately alone in facing the struggle we call life, and that the struggle can be hopelessly one-sided, one that cannot be won by dint of application and intellect alone.
It is a stark story that Dürrenmatt tells, but very cleverly woven, and with a sting in the tail in pure, ‘traditional’ crime novel-style, adding to the paradoxical feel with which the novella is lightly suffused: one that sets out to criticise the crime novel and is so successful precisely because it twists and turns like the best of them. Hats off to Pushkin Press for re-publishing this gem, and for planning to delight us with more of Dürrenmatt’s tense, melancholy and incredibly seductive writing.