Requiem for the Detective Novel: The case for Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1958 masterpiece The Pledge

The Pledge - a novella by Friedrich Durrenmatt published by Pushkin Vertigo PressDespite the evidence, here are the facts of the case: The Pledge is not detective fiction. Yes, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel is a work of fiction that revolves around a detective trying to catch a criminal but nothing is quite as it seems…

Its rabbit hole narrative begins with a retired chief of police inviting a writer of detective fiction (perhaps Dürrenmatt himself?) on a road trip to the snow and rain-swept outskirts of Zurich – a simple, brutal locale devoid of easy living.

The veteran officer narrator is keen to tell the story of his friend and former co-worker after giving fair warning to the writer (and in turn the reader) that typical detective fiction is not an accurate representation of what really happens. “That world may be perfect,” the chief notes “but it’s a lie”.

And so he begins to relate a tale of how untidy and unfathomable a homicide investigation really is: whereby justice towards the criminal is bitterly exchanged for madness towards the investigator. After all, what really happens to a policeman who can’t solve his most important case? What becomes of a pillar of society whose foundations are crumbling?

The Pledge grants us a hell of a lead character in Matthai – a brilliant detective at the top of his game and end of his career. He’s due to take on a cushy post overseas to see out his final days in the sun but before that he takes the call on a small town murder. It is to be his final case in Europe. A schoolgirl has been brutally killed and what evidence there is suggests that this is the latest work of someone responsible for at least two more unsolved child murders.

The police have their suspect – the very man who reported the crime. The whole town is ready to lynch him and the police have little reason to believe his pleas of innocence, especially when after a day=long interrogation he breaks down and confesses. When he kills himself the next day, everyone considers it an open and shut case but Matthai can not let it lie. He gave a pledge of honour to the victim’s family to find the person responsible. It holds as much weight as selling his soul to the devil.

“‘It’s a promise, Frau Moser,’ the inspector said, impelled solely by the desire to leave this place.
“‘On your eternal salvation?’
“‘The inspector hesitated. ‘On my eternal salvation,’ he finally said. What else could he do?”

It isn’t long before Matthai has quit his job and devoted all of his efforts to a case that is far from forthcoming when it comes to clues. He abandons his home and starts bouncing from hotel to hotel. He drinks. He begins to crack. He uses his savings to buy a petrol station as he’s adamant that the child killer will have to stop there. Especially if he populates it with live bait…

Swiss author Dürrenmatt’s novel blurs the lines between hero and villain so coldly and masterfully that you simply cannot take your eyes away from the novel’s 155 pages. The Pledge is a book to savour and digest slowly despite its slim form. It is rife with clues whether it’s brand names peppered within everyday descriptions (the kind of detail a detective might pick up on when viewing a scene) or more immersive, vague hints that Matthai’s mask of sanity is slipping. Or is it just that he’s got a genius-like plan? To catch a madman, he must become one. This is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold for the nordic noir generation.

The Pledge was made into a riveting film by Sean Penn in 2001 with a breathtakingly good Jack Nicholson playing an American incarnation of Matthai. As brilliant as the movie is, Dürrenmatt’s 1958 novella cuts deeper and warrants repeat readings to fully penetrate its dark heart. Now that Pushkin Vertigo have granted it a beautiful paperback release (with Dürrenmatt’s three other novels on the horizon), it’s the perfect time to (re)discover this probing, unforgettable mystery. There are precious few groundbreaking crime novels but this is one. And one of the very best.

The Pledge - a novella by Friedrich Durrenmatt published by Pushkin Vertigo Press

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