Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt: pt 1- introductory

The Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Picador, 1985 (who didn’t bother crediting the name of the translator.)

In my previous post I admitted to having reservations about autofiction. This time it’s crime/detection fiction I’m delving into – another genre I don’t find particularly congenial.

There’s no particular reason for this. I haven’t even read that much of it. A few so-called Golden Age authors like Margery Allingham, some Sherlock Holmes stories. I suppose most of my knowledge of the genre comes from films and tv.

It’s the formulaic nature that perhaps puts me off. There’s a crime, a detective or law officer has to solve the puzzle. Usually they have some character eccentricity: Holmes’s drugs, violin and slightly sociopathic tendencies; or the ‘tec is an elderly, matronly lady who seems more appropriate for a church bazaar than investigating decorously grisly murders…Nowadays, in the media anyway, he’s (it’s usually ‘he’, though of course there are some women, like Sarah Paretsky’s VI Warshawski; I heard some of her stories dramatized on radio, and liked them) usually troubled, perhaps alcoholic, divorced, a bit of mess in his personal life, lonely, but professionally a maverick who breaks all the rules – to brilliantly intuitive effect.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) was born in Konolfingen, SE of Bern, Switzerland. The son of a pastor, he spoke Oberland Swiss-German dialect; German was a second language for him, and I’ve seen it suggested that this perhaps accounts for the plainness and supposed occasional awkwardness of his German prose style (I don’t read German so can’t comment; the translation here is a little stilted at times, but that might be down to the anonymous translator).

Dürrenmatt Novels coverOf course FD is best known as a dramatist, but he wrote in a number of genres (see the essays at the Univ. Chicago Press site noted below). This battered old Picador paperback contains five of his novels.  They were all written in the fifties, apparently to earn money when he was strapped for cash and opted for this popular mode of fiction because it was more likely to be lucrative in sales terms than his drama (it was).

Four of them are “neo-noir” detective/crime stories set in Switzerland. They toy with the usual conventions, but subvert them. They are pervaded by the pessimistic, cynical and nihilistic tone of some elements of postwar Europe. There’s also an edge of satire or criticism of the author’s homeland’s neutral stance in that recent war against fascism.

This probably accounts for some critical descriptions of the novels as philosophical or existentialist thrillers rather than detective stories. All are entertaining and full of quirky characters and pacy action; it’s not surprising they’ve been adapted many times for dramatization and film. Some even started out as dramas and were converted into prose fiction. I’ll focus here just on the first two, involving Inspector Barlach as the anti-Holmesean hero; more on the rest next time.

In The Judge and the Hangman there’s the classic setup: the demonically clever master criminal – a Mephistophelean Moriarty – has made a grim bet with the equally clever Barlach, forty years before this narrative is set, that he’d commit the ‘perfect crime’ in front of him and the cop would be unable to do anything about it. He succeeds.

He then sets out to do the same thing over and over. The cop, now Inspector Barlach (who also features in The Quarry), is always outsmarted. Now dying of stomach cancer, he knows his deadly enemy, now living locally, is the prime suspect for this latest murder on his patch – the victim is one of his own detectives, and that he needs to nail his man before his disease kills him.

A startling twist at the end brings everything to a conclusion that’s so unexpected and symmetrically neat that it’s a little too contrived, and there’s a dry and cynical exploration of the notion of natural justice. Dürrenmatt in all four of these novels refuses to play entirely by the rules of the genre – in fact he makes those rules and their workings part of the substance of his narratives.

[Textual note: there’s a more recent University of Chicago Press translation of the fiction of FD by Joel Agee, 2006; Essay on his fiction at their website by Theodore Ziolkowski]

Bloggers I follow who have written about FD mostly used the Chicago UP edition with its snarling dog on the cover – he was apparently phobic about big dogs, having been attacked by a vicious one in his youth.

Grant on the two Insp. Barlach stories, at 1st Reading, recommends them to any reader who enjoys ‘morally complex issues’ in fiction, not just lovers of crime fiction; links in the comments there to:

Jacqui Wine’s Journal ( her post was part of Lizzy Siddal’s German Reading Month in 2015), compares FD with Simenon (indeed Barlach has been called the Swiss Maigret) and singles out some excellent quotations, including the trope of chess players engaged in a mortal battle of intellects.

Marina Sofia at Crime Fiction Lover on The Judge and his Hangman (with a ‘gloriously pulpy’ cover image), and at her own blog on Suspicion (aka The Quarry) here, finds similarities with Josephine Tey. One of her key quotations: ‘the law isn’t the law: power is’. She sees the novel in the context of Cold War brinkmanship and suspicion; ‘how can humanity survive on nihilism alone?’

Lizzy Siddal’s own post on Barlach (in a series on crime fiction in German, and specifically the genesis of Swiss authors) finds both plots (as I did) rather contrived to the point of fairy tale-like, with contrived resolutions and implausible situations (why would the bed-bound, dying retired detective in The Quarry place himself in the clutches of the suspected Nazi mass murderer and exponent of surgery without anaesthetic on his victims, without any backup? The denouement is comic-book implausible, with an anti-superhero Jewish Spiderman clone as deus ex machina.)

Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings more recently wrote about the same collection as me; her post, part of the Read 1951 project, is about The Quarry, which she found compelling, ‘brutal’ but ‘necessary’ – in the sense of its salutary message about ensuring unspeakable events in the past must not be repeated. Also pertinent as I write this, shortly after the poignant ceremonies on the beaches of Normandy after the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Grant also posted on The Pledge here (using the Pushkin Vertigo edition). I hope to write more about this interesting novella – the best in this collection – next time, as this post has already become too long.

PS: Centre FD at Neuchâtel website: exhibitions, artworks by him, etc., located at his former home to the west of Bern.

 

Share on Facebook and Twitter

6 thoughts on “Novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt: pt 1- introductory

  1. I’m quite a fan of crime novels, as you might have gathered(!) although I’ve rather abandoned most modern ones as I’ve frankly had enough of graphic violence against women. However, I do love classic crime, despite its formulas and reptitions – it’s my go-to when I need a relaxing, therapeutic read. However, Durrenmatt is anything but that, and I’ve found his stories dark and exciting. And you’ve reminded me I still have other stories in that crumbly old Picador that I haven’t read yet! 😀

  2. Thanks for linking to my piece, Simon – very kind. I’m glad you liked the first two stories in this collection, even if the others weren’t quite up to scratch. Durrenmatt’s interest in the morally complexities of these situations adds an interesting edge edge.

  3. Thanks for the link. The Pledge is certainly a favourite of mine. The other one I’ve read is The Assignment which is quite different, not crime fiction. I have the same five volume edition but I haven’t read the other two yet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *