Tag Archives: Swiss literature

Two middling short Dürrenmatt novels

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.

(I’ve also written about Dürrenmatt’s novel The Quarry in addition to the three novels mentioned (with links) in the second paragraph above and his play Romulus the Great.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

The Judge and His Hangman

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) is most famous in the English-speaking world for his play “The Visit” (which was messed up and supplied a happy ending in a 1964 movie version with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn), and two other very dark comedies, “Romulus the Great” and “The Physicists.” In the German-speaking world, Dürrenmatt is better known for his “anti-detective” novels, the third of which, was recently adapted brilliantly in English (already having been filmed in German) as “The Pledge,” one of the few movies based on the work of a major writer that I think was improved in adapting.

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The first of his detective novels, Der Richter und sein Henker, originally published in 1950 (and translated into English in 1954 as The Judge and His Hangman), was filmed in 1975  as “The End of the Game” (from a screenplay credited to Dürrenmatt and Maxmilian Schell; actor Schell directed director Martin Ritt as the main character in it, Jon Voight as his assistant, Robert Shaw as the arch-villain, and Jacqueline Bissett as the romantic interest for most everyone, including Donald Sutherland whose character is already dead at the movie’s start). The movie is intriguing but more than a little murky, even though Dürrenmatt himself plays a part in the film in whom the two detectives consult.


The novel(la) begins with a rural constable finding a policemam from Bern, Switzerland’s capital, shot in a car with its engine still running. The passenger door is unlocked and the constable pushes the corpse over, put a hat on him, and drives the dead policeman’s car to Bern police headquarters. The dead policeman, whose name is Schmied was a promising younger detective and the partner of an ailing senior detective named Barlach (whose insistence in working his own way to the irritation of his nominal boss is reminiscent of Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, as is his concern with justice more than with law). Barlach goes to the dead man’s flat and takes away a folder with notes on an investigation about which Barlach’s superior know nothing. In investigating Gastmann, a long-time nemesis of Barlach, a very rich and well-connected industrialist who has returned to where he grew up, Schmied had been attending weekly parties Gastmann threw. The parties brought together artists (including the novelist whom Dürrenmatt plays in the movie), high-ranking members of the party in power in Switzerland, and trade staff from an embassy. (The political/economic connections are MIA from the movie.)


Barlach is an interesting character, whose insides are literally eating him up. Before surgery and its risks, he wants to finish the job of bringing down Gastmann. The complexity of his plan is only apparent at the end, and I certainly do not want to spoil its ingenuity.

In general, Dürrenmatt’s detective novels “show that the ordinary detective story’s belief in rationality is itself irrational” and in much of his writing for the stage, too “reality is unfathomable and defies calculation.” Planning in Dürrenmatt generally runs aground on unexpected coincidences (for instance, the well-planned trap in “The Pledge” or the asylum sought in “The Physicists”). Elsewhere, he wrote, “The more human beings proceed according to plan, the more effectively they may be hit be coincidence,” and took Oedipus as the archetype of being struck by what he (and his parents) were trying to avoid. Barlach is an exception. He has been foiled for decades, but has become flexible in adapting what happens.

The book is splendid and very lucid a detective story, with a long-ago crime that was nihilistic in the Leopold/Loeb/acte gratuite sense. It also includes a high level of reflexivity, with a novelist who is fascinated by someone who might do anything and how the philosophical matters (as well as a discussion of goumet meals between the novelist and Barlach) are entirely lost on the ambitious new assistant with whom Barlach must work (and whose name is German for “chance”). The novelist says he is a kind of policeman, too, though without any state power. “It’s my job as much as it is yours to keep a sharp eye on people.” Barlach understands what he means and already knows that Gastmann is capable of murder, whether or not he killed the policeman.


©2018. Stephen O. Murray