The Judge and His Hangman by Friedrich Durrenmatt starts like traditional detective fiction with the body of a murdered policeman discovered in his car at the side of the road, mystery behind and in front of the corpse as the road snakes through the Swiss countryside in both directions.
Less than 130 pages later and the mystery has reached its conclusion but the tone and format have veered wildly off course away from police procedural and towards the headier realms of a philosophical moralistic fable. Such was Durrenmatt’s style; he wasn’t interested in exploring crime fiction when he could explode it instead. Few authors deconstructed their own safety net meticulously as Durrenmatt did.
At the centre of the novel is the ailing, old school Inspector Barlach who functions as a Holmes-esque master of intellectual restraint, forever one step ahead even to the reader. In this slim but effective novella he has his own Moriarty for good measure, but I won’t spoil this character’s motivation or backstory for the purpose of this review. But I will say that the adversary functions like Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse screen villain – omnipotent, menacing, calculated and a society upon himself. This kind of nemesis is all the more frightening not because of his heinous actions but more due to his overbearing influence. Corruption of power (on both sides of the law) is a key theme for Durrenmatt and a fascinating one for the reader to submerge themselves in from the safety of an armchair.
The Judge and His Hangman could be devoured in a single sitting, its haunting contents continuing to unspool for days after the backcover folds over. But it should not be rushed.
Durrenmatt is such a lean writer that it would be easy to dismiss his prose as simply sparse or even limited in ambition but there is rich, economical atmosphere that pierces his narrative and adds great depth. Take this short, but brutally cutting, sentence for example: “Now there remained nothing between them but the immensity of death, a judge whose verdict is silence”.
Durrenmatt, with this observation (and many others), establishes a sense of despair, a nagging feeling that a dark void is engulfing his characters and that even a tidy conclusion and a “case closed” stamp would offer little comfort.
In Durrenmatt’s novellas, his crimes are not described as cold facts that merely form backdrops to stories. Instead they are diseases that investigators and criminals have breathed in, got addicted to and are strung out on. Durrenmatt, the only one with easy access to an antidote, isn’t here to offer a cure. In fact, he actually has something of a trademark style in that he avoids convention and resolve in his third acts. You will struggle to find crime stories this concentrated that cut deep to the heart of villainy as succinctly as The Judge and His Hangman.
Read this classic and its slightly superior sibling, The Pledge, also by Durrenmatt. They are literally brilliant. Both are published by Pushkin as part of their crime novella series Pushkin Vertigo and are available now.