Requiem for the Detective Novel: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Pledge”

Requiem auf den Kriminalroman:  This was Dürrenmatt’s own subtitle for his short and stunning novel, Das Versprechen [The Pledge] (1958).  It has no place in Sean Penn’s film version of the book  though this did keep the title, The Pledge (2001), and did not use the title of previous film versions, It Happened in Broad Daylight, which Dürrenmatt himself did not like. He meant what he said when he called the novel The Pledge or, one might say, The Promise: it is precisely about the keeping of a promise made by a detective. I think he also meant what he said when he gave it a subtitle. Recent translations have dropped the subtitle without explanation (e.g. The Pledge, tr. Joel Agee, 2006).  These days the titles of novels are frequently changed, seemingly at the whim of publishers, from country to country, continent to continent and some publisher might well have decided that the subtitle would not sell the book.  But a deliberate, if ironic, subtitle it surely is, not just a publishing frill.

Perhaps the translators left out the subtitle because if you try to translate the word “Kriminalroman,” you have to make a decision about what it means.  “Crime novel” which looks right doesn’t really do it, since it covers (and how) a multitude of sins.  You have to decide nowadays whether you are talking about a thriller, a noir thriller, a detective novel, a police procedural, a murder mystery  . . . or what.  Any one of them could be a “Kriminalroman”—they all have violent crime at their core—but to put the word into English in the subtitle you would have to be sure what the Swiss writer Dürrenmatt is talking about when he calls his novel a Requiem auf den Kriminalroman.  It is clear to me that he does not mean it to be a requiem for the crime novel in general but very precisely a requiem for the traditional detective story, for what P. D. James has called “the detective story proper,” which is, as she has said, “fundamentally concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder” [Talking about Detective Fiction, p.13].

The Pledge focuses, as does the “detective story proper” and indeed the “cosy murder mystery,” on the process of detection rather than on the murder itself, but the process of detection in Dürrenmatt’s novel is very much not about instilling in the law-abiding citizen a comfortable or cozy sense of order restored; rather it is aimed at shaking the law-abiding citizen out of any belief that order can seriously exist in a world where chance is so often the ultimate arbiter.  As Dürrenmatt wrote in one of his “21 Points for Physicists,” appended to his play The Physicists: “The more human beings act according to plan, the more effectively can they be hit by accident.”

The Kommandant or Chief of Police in the Canton of Zürich—in, you might think, one of the most ordered countries on the face of the earth—says early on in the narrative of The Pledge:

People hope that at least the police know how to order the world—I can imagine no more pathetic hope—but unfortunately in all these detective stories there is another quite different swindle going on—I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals will be brought to justice. This delightful fairy tale is no doubt morally necessary.  It is one of the lies that keep the state going, as does the pious saying, crime doesn’t pay—whereas in fact you only have to look at human society to see the truth on that score.

He can accept all this, it’s a matter of business:  the audience, the taxpayer, has a right to its heroes and its happy end, and the police as well as the writers of detective fiction, are obliged to deliver this. The Kommandant is a pragmatist as far as the functioning of society is concerned, but what really upsets him is the way detective story writers build up their fictional plots. There the swindle is shameless: It’s all so logical—the criminal, the victim, the accessory , the beneficiary—the detective has only to know the rules and play the game by the rules, the criminal is caught and justice triumphs.

 “You do not try to deal with the reality that surrounds us, you set up a world that can be managed; this world may be perfect, but it’s a lie.”

Thus does he attack the detective-story writer who from then on only hovers in the background as listener to the Kommandant’s story.

The story that the Kommandant tells is that of his senior man, Matthäi, once a brilliant and dedicated police detective, Doctor of Law and First Lieutenant of the Swiss police in Zürich.  His methodical, compulsive but ultimately frantic attempts to solve a crime have led to his own self-destruction as well as the ruination of at least two other lives but they have not led to the discovery of the criminal. The criminal is discovered, but criminal justice does not triumph, and certainly not through the massive and well-thought out efforts of the ­detective. In the “detective story proper,” it is the best-laid schemes of the criminal that are pre-destined to go awry,  in The Pledge the best-laid schemes of the detective.

Do not imagine, however, that this novel reads like the formulaic demonstration of a theory. It does not. The story packs a real punch and I am not going to ruin that here by giving away details of the plot. Suffice to say that a little girl is horribly murdered, a peddler who passes by and reports the crime is accused of the murder, commits suicide in his first night in the police cell, and the police call the case closed. Matthäi, a fifty-year old man at the pinnacle of his career, about to leave his post for a prestigious position abroad, finds himself telling the parents of the girl what has happened, and makes a promise to the mother that he will find the murderer. He has already resigned his position in the police force and so, unconvinced that the peddler is the real murderer, he sets out on a personal crusade,  lasting the nine narrative years of the novel, to keep his promise and find the murderer, ultimately using another little girl as bait to catch the criminal.  He fails, and in the attempt he loses his mind to the obsession, helped along by alcohol and despair.

These are only the bare bones of the action.  It is the narrative itself that is a masterpiece. The story is propelled forward, slowly, inexorably, in the voice of the Kommandant, unhurried in his story-telling.   We, the readers, have been eased into the story by the writer of detective novels, the first-person narrator of the opening pages, who briefly tells of a not particularly successful foray into lecturing on the art of writing detective fiction at a provincial literary society meeting.  This comic-satiric beginning, in which the worthy citizens of Chur show much more interest in the lecture of the famous Germanist, Emil Staiger, on the late Goethe, than in the supposedly clumsy remarks of our surrogate Dürrenmatt, detective-novel writer, allows him to mock himself and to set the scene for open criticism of the genre.  The Kommandant has attended the lecture, more or less against his will, and did not think much of it, but is happy to drink whisky in the hotel bar with the lecturer until late into the night, and the following morning to drive this semi-hung-over writer in his car from Chur to Zürich.

. . . we were driving towards the Kerenz Pass--the road was icy again, and below us lay Lake Walen, gleaming, cold, hostile . . ."

In a gas-station early in that journey they encounter the broken man, Matthäi; the Kommandant launches into his attack on detective fiction, illustrating this with his story of how  Matthäi got to this point of decrepitude in his gas-station, a story which goes on, uninterrupted by any comments from the author-passenger, all the way from Chur to Zürich over the  Kerenz Pass, and then over a couple of bottles of wine in the Kommandant’s favorite eating and drinking place, the Kronenhalle in Zürich (a favorite eating place of Dürrenmatt himself).  There, when much of the story is told, the Kommandant pauses, as one might over a couple of bottles of wine, to make a few more didactic remarks directed at the author, commenting on the story he is telling and suggesting to the author how he might use it in his detective fiction, how he might create an ending, a twist, that would make a very nice story or film and uplift the reader, fulfill his hopes and satisfy his beliefs. But then, in the final crushing minutes of his narrative the Kommandant reveals to his listener and to us the truth of what happened, and the way he discovered it, slowly, slowly, while we turn the pages faster and faster, wanting to find out finally who the murderer is, discovering of course that there is no comfort and no moral uplift in this last dreadfully comic-grotesque coda which ends the narrative of the Kommandant and so of the novel.

The entire story of Matthäi’s promise and how he tries to keep it is told in hindsight, years after the actual crime,  by the Kommandant, who all the while knows the whole story, including who the murderer is.  The particular artistry of the novel, of the story-telling, is thrown into relief by the star-studded 2001 movie, The Pledge, directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson, with cameo roles by Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren, among others.  It is, in my opinion, a very good movie, though not, apparently, a super-successful one, but it achieves something very different from the novel.

Transposing the action from Switzerland to Nevada means, as thriller-writer Sally Spedding recently remarked to me, that the essentially claustrophobic atmosphere of the novel is lost.  This is inevitable and it is not just a matter of geography. The loss of Swiss local color and the role it plays in the novel is also considerable. Dürrenmatt thrives on small asides that poke fun at the Swiss and at Switzerland: thus the Kommandant, talking about his untidy office says, “It is everyone’s duty in this well-ordered state to create, as it were, islands of disorderliness,” or talking about the humorlessness of Matthäi, he says, “he had a superb brain, but because of the way our country is all too solidly constructed,  he had lost his feelings, he was an organization man.” Such jibes, and they are numerous, can be harmless and amusing, but he also uncovers a potential for horror lying under the peaceful surface of the country, creating for example a frighteningly believable crowd scene in a picturesque little village where a lynching is only narrowly avoided (one thinks of The Visit). Some of the worst events of the novel happen on a Sunday with church bells ringing,  and twice the Kommandant mentions in passing that there were two hundred cases a year of child-molestation in the Kanton of Zurich alone—hard to believe against the picture-book prettiness of the area, and I have no idea whether this is an accurate figure.  But Dürrenmatt’s stock-in-trade is horror that lies beneath the surface, underlying Swiss order, in particular, but potentially beneath human order in general, and the most extreme instance in this novel is in the grotesque and appallingly comic coda that brings the story to its end. The invective against the artificial orderliness of the detective story is part and parcel of the invective against what Dürrenmatt sees as the superficial orderliness of society. It is not surprising that the Swiss have often found him and his outspokenness hard to take, a famous instance being the speech he made in 1990 on the occasion of Vaclav Havel’s visit to Switzerland, entitled, “Switzerland, a Prison?”

All this is inevitably missing in Sean Penn’s Nevadan The Pledge, where Matthäi is transformed into Jerry, a police officer in Reno, just retired. Nicholson plays a brilliant role, and the film starts and ends with him, hardly ever moving outside his consciousness, quite different from Matthäi of the novel who is only ever seen from the perspective of a third person.  It starts with Jerry’s retirement party in downtown Reno, shots of which are interspersed with shots of the murdered child in the woods. The action of the film holds closely to the action of the novel as far as the events of Matthäi’s involvement in the case are concerned, his promise to the mother, his subsequent increasingly obsessive determination to find the murderer, from outside the police force.  Chance does, in fact, thwart his crusade for justice, but we see this in the time-perspective in which the fatal accident occurs, and this changes greatly the impact that the intervention of chance makes on the viewer’s perception of the plot.  By completely abandoning the narrative framework of the novel, the film does not turn the conventions of the detective story on their head, as the story does, but rather takes a conventional detective story and concentrates unconventionally on the mental disintegration of the detective.  Sean Penn creates an original and very upsetting psychological thriller of his own, using Dürrenmatt’s story as his story-line without looking with Dürrenmatt’s critical eyes at the story.  And why should he?  Dürrenmatt has done this brilliantly for himself.

A brilliantly told story.  A work of art.  “Very good for a detective story”?    No, purely, simply, without qualification, a very clever, very upsetting, very well-written novel.  Absurd to relegate this novel, this stunning piece of writing to a secondary place either in Dürrenmatt’s own oeuvre or in the literary canon.  In academic discussions of his work, it is listed under detective fiction, which of course it is. Unlike Julian Barnes, recently discussed in this blog, Dürrenmatt wrote his detective fiction under his own name. But he has been known to call his detective stories “Brotarbeit”—work done to make money.  There was a time in his life when he badly needed money, and his detective fiction belongs in that time. But so does his major world success, the drama Der Besuch der alten Dame/ The Visit which began, as we say, to make his fortune.  One does not think less of The Visit because it made him money.  Any more than, presumably, Julian Barnes thinks less of The Sense of an Ending because it won him the Booker Prize – surely a money-making achievement. And yet it does sound disparaging when it is said of Barnes’s Duffy novels, his detective novels, written under a pseudonym, “Duffy helps pay the rent” [Conversations . . .,22).  So after all does The Sense of an Ending help pay the rent.  So did The Visit as well as The Pledge.

Am I protesting too much? Am I falling here into the trap of writing an apologia, trying to say that detective fiction is on a par with “real literature”?  I think there is an ambiguity on this among the writers of detective fiction themselves, and Dürrenmatt did not escape such ambiguity. He wrote his Requiem for the Detective Novel and put to rest in grand style the “detective story proper.”  But he did so in a great piece of crime fiction.  And where would he have put his crime fiction in the canon of his work?   In 1954/55 he gave a lecture in various cities in Switzerland and Germany called “Problems of the Theater” in which he was not writing about crime fiction; he was discussing in a characteristically disparaging way criticism of literature and particularly the theater by professional and academic critics. But his last words in this essay were:

How can the artist exist in a world of educated and literate people? The question oppresses me, and I know no answer. Perhaps the writer can best exist by writing detective stories, by creating art where it is least suspected. Literature must become so light that it will weigh nothing upon the scale of today’s literary criticism: only in this way will it regain its true worth.”

And that is, I think, the beginning of another discussion.

[The translations in this post are my own, except for the last quotation from “Problems of the Theater” which comes from a translation by Gerhard Nellhaus, 1958. I have not seen this essay in German so cannot vouch for the translation.]

Thanks for help with pictures, links and for good conversations about Dürrenmatt with Annette Kym and Klaus Drexl.

Thanks to Sally Spedding for first drawing my attention recently to The Pledge in an interview in this blog.]


About dorothyjames

Welsh-American writer, German scholar, translator, traveller.
This entry was posted in crime fiction, detective fiction, literary mystery, movie thriller, murder mystery and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Requiem for the Detective Novel: Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s “The Pledge”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Very interesting post! I’m going to read this soon.

  2. So now I’m curious … how’d you first learn about The Pledge? Reading your post reminds me – tangentially, in reverse, and translated – of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Which leads me to a second question … what’s the best film adaptation of a book you know of? Keep cranking out the intellectually delightful posts!

    • dorothyjames says:

      Thanks, Sean! I’d read Duerrenmatt years ago — most people in German programs do — but not The Pledge, and when Sally Spedding, writer of chiller-thrillers, told me in the blog that The Pledge was one of her all-time favorite stories, I was pretty surprised. Then when I went back to Duerrenmatt and read it, I could see why. I saw the movie of Benjamin Button, and liked it, but I have never read the Scott Fitzgerald story — perhaps I will now you mention it. And as to the best film adaptation of a book I know – well that’s a tall order — first to come to mind is Fassbinder’s adaptation of Fontane’s Effi Briest — great film of a a Great Book, well, a brilliant comment on the book, really — but that’s a longer discussion. Thanks a lot for dropping in.

  3. Annette Kym says:

    I enjoyed reading your post particularly your comments why the subtitle is important. Dürrenmatt’s story does not restore order but shakes up the law-abiding citizen. Dürrenmatt was a keen observer of Swiss society and leveled his criticism in often comic-satiric ways. This comes across in his descriptions of everyday events, but probing below the surface, the idyllic picture gets disturbed. The story is fascinating and I hope your comments about it will entice many to read the Pledge.

    • dorothyjames says:

      Thanks, Annette! Glad to have a Swiss point of view. Yes, I hope some more American readers take up The Pledge — and maybe look at the DVD of Sean Penn’s film too. From Switzerland to Nevada in more ways than one.

  4. Reblogged this on Read Heavily and commented:
    The thing about reading heavily is, you can never read enough. That’s where great reviews like this one from Dorothy James can help. I’ve added The Pledge to my TBR wish-list!

    • dorothyjames says:

      Thank you, Sean, very much! great that you have reblogged this piece. I will be most interested in what your readers might have to say about it. And what you will say when you have read The Pledge.

  5. Annette Kym says:

    On May 2nd, I saw a theatrical production of “Das Versprechen” in Zuerich. You might be interested in my impressions. It was a good adaptation and the actors played forcefully. I did not give too much thought to how the story would be adapted but let myself be surprised. The performance was announced without intermission and the set does not change. When the curtain opens, a landscape of three-dimensional sharp peaks in silvery plastic foil forms the background. There are areas where actors could climb or walk on. The shiny background gives somewhat of an eerie feeling. The play focuses only on the murder plot and does not include the “Rahmen” as it does in the play. The actors prepare the murder scene, smear the little girl with blood and dirt. As in the story, Matthäi, who is supposed to assume a foreign assignment, gets involved and promises the mother of the girl to solve the case. Except for Matthäi, most other actors play various roles. Matthäi’s acting is superb. From a logical police detective, he turns into an obsessed fanatic that does not shy away from sacrificing another girl in order to lure the murderer into his trap. The scene with the girl playing at the river is crucial. She sits at a small brook and plays with the water. (There is a real ditch filled with water on the silvery foil set). She sings an American pop song tune (I forgot what it was) over and over again. The scene seems to last an eternity and thus enhances the suspense. At the end, after the audience finds out that the real murderer was killed in a car accident, Matthäi stands on the stage and is himself in his delusion. The fact that the play is being performed without intermission allows the suspense to build up. The director does leave out the “Rahmen” with all its sarcastic and critical comments that Duerrenmatt includes in the story. For a stage adaptation, this was probably a good trick because it would have distracted from being something like a psychological thriller.

    I am sure you would have enjoyed the play. The acting was excellent and the entire production gave this eerie feeling that also exists in the story.

  6. Pingback: The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt | The Game's Afoot

  7. Pingback: The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

  8. Kealan says:

    This is one of the very best pieces written about the book and movie.
    It has helped me massively on my german essay.
    Thank You so much!

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