The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Translated by  Joel Agee

Reviewed by Eleanor Franzen

In a mountainous Swiss canton not far from Zurich, a little girl’s body is found. She is only seven or eight, with blonde braids and wearing a distinctive red skirt. She has been murdered, brutally, with a straight razor. It’s the last day on the job for Inspector Matthäi, of the Zurich police: he is about to be seconded to Amman as a consultant working on the reform of the Jordanian police system. He does the necessary preliminary work, then hands over the case and prepares to fly out the next day. But the girl—Gritli Moser—haunts him. At the airport, he can’t bring himself to board the plane; instead he rushes back to Zurich, determined to bring Gritli’s killer to justice. The fact that someone has already been arrested, confessed, and hanged himself in his jail cell doesn’t matter to Matthäi; he believes the man was innocent. The rest of Dürrenmatt’s novel recounts Matthäi’s increasingly desperate attempts to find the real killer.

Like many good postmodern novels, The Pledge actually starts elsewhere, with a frame story: a writer of detective fiction gives a talk at a provincial city hall. Later, in a bar, he meets a man who was in the audience. This is Dr. H., the former Zurich chief of police. Dr. H. offers to give the writer a lift to the city the next morning. On the drive back, they stop at a gas station run by a disheveled and quietly crazy old man. Dr. H. explains that this is his former star lieutenant, Matthäi, who has been driven to insanity by his attempts to solve the Moser case, and tells the writer the story as a way of passing the time on the drive.

This leads to an irritating stylistic point: the entire novel, past the second or third chapter, is told with quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, since we are to understand that this is all being recounted by Dr. H. It would have caused no confusion at all to drop these once the narrative got going in good earnest; the frame is not so complicated that the reader is unable to keep track of who’s speaking. Some readers, though, find this sort of thing less frustrating, and if you can ignore them, they don’t detract from the story.

The Pledge is two things in one: firstly, it is a story about how giving one’s word can lead to danger and madness, but secondly, and more importantly, it is a story about how tidy narratives are not to be trusted. Dr. H.’s interjections into his own tale are full of frustrations at the limitations of the detective genre. “You set up your stories logically, like a chess game,” he says; “all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught… This fantasy drives me crazy.”  Dürrenmatt wants to challenge this idea of the possibility of clean justice, and thereby, to challenge the entire driving force behind the popularity of the mystery novel. Don’t we read mysteries, after all, to see them solved? Isn’t the purpose of reading a “cozy thriller” the intellectual satisfaction of working out a puzzle, or the catharsis of an ending?

Dürrenmatt won’t give us that. Inspector Matthäi understands the rules of the game well enough, and he comes as close to catching the killer as he possibly could. But the price for his near-success is that he commits increasingly unethical acts (including getting close to a woman with a small daughter so that he can use the child as bait). Although Dürrenmatt doesn’t quite condone this, he shows the reader how Matthäi’s actions are only the logical extension of the “rules of the game”, and plants the seed of doubt in our minds: if this is the only way to catch a killer, is it worth it? To secure the lives of other children, is it acceptable to endanger one—and to do so, moreover, without her knowledge or consent?

He also understands that even a reader entirely sympathetic to his aims will not be best pleased by a detective novel that lacks any closure, and so we are allowed to know the answer that evades Inspector Matthäi for so long. We are allowed, also, to take comfort from the fact that Matthäi was on the right track; that, had randomness not intervened, he would eventually have succeeded. But randomness, Dr. H. emphasises, is predictably unpredictable:

This factor of the incalculable …makes all his genius, his plans, and his actions appear even more painfully absurd in hindsight… There is no greater cruelty than a genius stumbling over something idiotic. But when something like that happens, everything depends on the stance the genius takes toward the ridiculous thing…whether he can accept it or not. Matthäi couldn’t accept it. He wanted reality to conform to his expectations. Therefore he had to deny reality and end in a void. 

Perhaps there’s a little bit too much of this philosophising; perhaps less analysis from Dr. H. and more of a focus on Matthäi’s personal psychology would make this a detective novel that more fully achieves what detective novels generally set out to do. But then again, Dürrenmatt’s refusal to abide by genre conventions is the whole point—which makes The Pledge, in its tricksiness, a resounding success.

Eleanor blogs at Elle Thinks and is currently writing her first novel.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge (London: Pushkin Vertigo, 2017). 978-1782273394, 155 pp., paperback.

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2 Comments

  1. Kilian Metcalf

    I though I recognized the plot. This was the basis for a dynamite indy film of the same name starring Jack Nicholson Benicio del Toro, and Robin Wright Penn, directed by Sean Penn.

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