I have a 1985 British paperback titled The Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, though in German he published another in 1985 (The Execution of Justice) and one more in 1986 (The Assignment). I had already read the later ones and four of the five in what was briefly a complete collection of his novels.
Dürrenmatt was fascinated by detective stories, though he called one he wrote “anti-detective stories.” The whydunit, The Execution of Justice, particularly flouts conventions that are somewhat observed in The Judge and the Hangman (his first novel) and The Pledge (his fifth).
In A Dangerous Game (Die Panne, 1956, first issued in the US as Traps), the car (a red Studebaker) of traveling salelsman named Traps breaks down. There is no room in the local inn, and he is taken in by an old man, whom he and the reader soon learn is a retired judge. He, a retired prosecutor, a retired defense attorney, and a retired executioner (from some unspecified country other than Switzerland, which had banned capital punishment) gather for dinners and play a game of resuming their former professional roles—over haute cuisine and a lot of good vintage wine.
Raps maintains that he is innocent, never having committed any crime. Over the course of the repast, however, the prosecutor convinces Traps that he murdered the man who had held the position he now holds. The man had a weak heart, and Traps made sure that he would find out that his wife had been making time with his subordinate.
Not that he died on learning of his wife and subordinate’s liaison, or that Traps could have been convicted of murder in any conventional trial. He is flattered by the prosecutor laying out “the perfect murder” and is swallowed up in the role the prosecutor crafts.
Uniquely in Dürrenmatt’s novels, the previous one, Griece sucht Griechin (which means “A Greek for a Greek,” the title of a couples ad; the 1955 novel was, however, rendered in English as Once a Greek…) contains no murder, though there is a planned assassination of the president of a country a lot like Switzerland.
The novel struck me as a sort of inverted Kafka plot, (and/or foreshadowing Jerzy Kosińsk’s Being There) in which instead of existential guilt, a man is bombarded with good fortune—after Chloe, a woman of Greek ancestry, responds to the “Greek for Greek” ad and agrees to marry the poor assistant-assistant bookkeepr of a huge conglomerate company that manufactures forceps as well as machine guns an atomic cannons (whatever they might be!). Eventually, Archilochos discovers why he is suddenly in good facor and showered with good things. Of course, he freaks out (which leads to agreeing to assassinate the president, who turns out to be quite charming), and very un-Dürrenmattish, there is a happy ending.
I think that the fairy tale is overly long (though running slightly less than a hundred pages). Both these middle-1950s novels are very contrived. In a New York Times review of Once a Greek, Kurt Vonnegut likened the novel to a carefully and smoothly entineered Swiss clock: “There are no mechanical mysteries or flaws. The intricately twinkling, twitching works can be admired through cases of glass, and they make little dolls act out jerky little scenes of human love and greed and stupidity and murder and politics and hope. The dolls are frankly dolls, doing what the machinery says they must. There is one human soul at which to marvel—the soul of the inventor.”
After labeling the jokes “Jungian” (why, I don’t understand),Vonnegut railed at the idea that a Studebaker could be chic, though red Studebakers feature in both Once a Greek and A Dangerous Game (though admittedly, the one in the latter book breaks down, a prelude to the dangerous game its owner gladly joins. (That things are going to get out of hand is certain: otherwise what would the book be?) I am less interested in the existential guilt of Traps than in his engulfment in the role the prosecutor concocts. And neither seems as good to me as The Pledge, which followed them.
©2019, Stephen O. Murray