I have no doubt that Frierdrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) is the greatest Swiss writer in German ever (and the greatest Swiss writer in any language since Rousseau). Alas, The Execution of Justice (begun in 1957, when it is set, first published in German in Zurich, where it is set, in 1985 as Justiz) is not a great book—or even a good book. Fans of mystery novels (which Dürrenmatt was not*) will quickly abandon it, and most other readers will find it padded with place descriptions and backstories of minor (and not very interesting) characters. Sentences go on and on** and paragraphs run for pages without a break (I think that the longest is 19 pages).
The book is an account of an attorney, Spat, who believes in justice, but takes on a job against his principles to concoct an alternative to the straightforward murder conviction of Isaak Kohler, a business magnate who went into a crowded restaurant and shot a professor who dined at the same table every night. Two things were missing in the original case: a motive and the murder weapon. Kohler was unperturbed through the trial and seems quite content in prison, making baskets, learning Esperanto and about beekeeping.
Spat employs the lawyer who has few clients, telling him that he is not “supposed to investigate reality . . . but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality.” Spat eventually (and wrongly) concludes that Kphler’s “motive was too abstract for our system of justice,” though a desire to play God (which he correctly imputes) is not all that abstract. Spat is determined to execute justice, though he becomes aware that “executing justice is something different from having to live in the expectation of executing it.”
More or less everything is revealed in an epilogue to “Spat’s manuscript,” for anyone still interested. The author who has long had but not read the manuscript, judges that “the [dilettante] author, a lawyer, was no match for his material.” Along the way are many digs at Swiss society/character. And what the sociologist (Knulpe) Kohler also retained to study the consequences of a murder concluded is not revealed (which may disturb only other sociologists, with so much else to disturb readers, not least a statement by someone who has been there that “a person was only truly free when being raped.”
*An unbylined afterword reports that “Dürrenmatt thought detective novels should reflect the absurdity of real life rather than proceeding like mathematical equations with a definite solution. Of the traditional crime writers, he once said, “You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: all the detective needs to know is [sic.] the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy” and is not one he embraced, even if film producers insisted on a neat conclusion for The Pledge. Contrary to the back cover blurb, Execution of Justice is not as terse as a Maigret mystery. Simenon’s Maigret novels surely embody what Dürrenmatt disliked in the genre with which he toyed (generally to more interesting results than here).
** An example from a page selected at random (184): “I sensed that night as I became aware of what could have become of me, of a possibility beyond my grasp, which lay within me but which I had not actualized [yuck!] and because I was happy then, for one whole night long, I was convinced that I would become what I did not become.” And on the same page: “I did not tell her that her father had been forced to murder (even if that infernal dwarf may have wanted it), that he was simply taking pleasure in playing God on this wretched planet of ours, and that I had sold myself twice over, once to him and once to a star lawyer who took his pleasure in letting the game of justice be played out, like a master who magnanimously takes over in a chess game that a novice has begun.”
©2019, Stephen O. Murray
Some other reviews of better Dürenmatt works: