The Pledge
by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
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At the debut of his first play, It Is Written,
fights broke out in the audience—a response
that Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) no
doubt saw as a sign of
the public's successful
engagement with his
drama. Dürrenmatt’s
concept of epic theater
eschewed the passive
audience seeking diver-
sion and entertainment—
so fisticuffs may well
have been preferable
to polite applause.   "My grandfather was
once sent to prison for ten days because of a
poem he wrote," Friedrich Dürrenmatt once
noted.  "I haven't been honored in that way
yet." His most famous works,
The Visit
(1956) and
The Physicists (1961), combined
tragic and comic elements that  resonated
with modern audiences, and established these
plays among the most frequently performed—
and emulated—dramas of its day.  
Dürrenmatt was equally at home in more
populist genres, authoring detective stories
and radio plays, yet invariably twisting the
familiar formulas to allow him to deal with
his recurring themes of guilt, responsibility
and the grotesqueries of human affairs. "A
story is not finished," he once explained,
"until it took the worst turn."
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Among the more sardonic twists of the post-
modern mystery is a new character type, the failed
detective.   The best known realization of this
concept comes from Roman Polanski’s 1974 film
Chinatown, which brilliantly evoked the classic noir
mysteries of the past, while undermining almost
every one of their familiar premises and clichés.   
Here, the mystery genre, which
came to birth as a celebration
of ratiocination and the capacity
of human reason to solve and
resolve, achieves the exact op-
posite effect, testifying to our
incapacities, limitations and

In the cinematic world, earlier film-
makers—almost all of them, like
Polanski, non-Americans deeply impacted by events of
World War II—had deliberately overturned various
conventions of the classic detective movie. Vittorio De
Sica's deeply moving 1948 film
The Bicycle Thief presents
a crime not only resistant to justice and resolution, but
in which the victim is ultimately punished far more than
the perpetrator.  Two years later, Akira Kurosawa,
showed in his equally unnerving film
Rashomon, how
even the first hand testimony that seemingly tells who
committed a murder can be hopelessly subjective, with
the truth eluding the most vigilant seeker. Jean-Luc
Alphaville (1965), while stepping back from the
failed detective meme, nonetheless twists the
conventions of the genre into radical new shapes, both
parodying and deconstructing elements borrowed from
the classic American noir mysteries.  

The detective stories of Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-
1990) reflect a similar perspective, one that both imitates
and rejects the accepted formulas.   These books are
rarely read nowadays, and this author is far better known
for his dramatic works, in particular
The Visit (1956) and
The Physicists (1961).  Yet Dürrenmatt's 1958 novel The
ranks among the finest literary realizations of the
tragedy of the failed detective.  The book also served as
inspiration for a high-profile 2001
film, starring Jack
Nicholson and directed by Sean Penn.  

In Dürrenmatt's novel, the Swiss police inspector
Matthäi has accepted an attractive offer to serve as
official adviser to a foreign government’s constabulary,
but on his last day before leaving, he takes on a final
case that proves to be his undoing.  A young girl has
been murdered, and Matthäi makes a pledge to the
victim's mother that he will find the person responsible
for the crime.   A peddler who discovered the body is
assumed by the villagers to be the perpetrator, and he
confesses after an intense interrogation—and then hangs
himself.   But Matthäi is convinced that another
individual must be responsible, both for this murder and
other similar crimes from previous years.   

In his obsession to solve the mystery, the inspector lets
his own life unravel.  He rejects the career-advancing
foreign appointment—literally turning around from the
plane right before boarding—in order to pursue the
murder investigation and deliver on his pledge.  Because
of his obsession, fixating on an officially "closed case,"
Matthäi also loses the respect of his former colleagues
on the police force, who refuse to accept him bank into
their ranks.  He is now a lone citizen, but continues to
hunt relentlessly for the murderer he is convinced must
still be on the loose.

Drawing on the most meager clues, Matthäi identifies a
major roadway he believes to be the thoroughfare
traveled by the perpetrator in the course of committing
his crimes.  The former policeman purchases a gas
station on this road, using it as base from which he
continues his investigation.   Here Matthäi  also shares
the bed of a woman with criminal associations of her
own, and the reader eventually comes to understand
that Matthäi is using her daughter as "bait" to lure the
serial killer into a situation where he can be
apprehended.   He is seemingly oblivious to the murky
ethics of his situation, and the wrongness of putting one
girl at risk in order to avenge another;  but by this time,
our failed detective is so caught up in his mission that
all other concerns fall by the wayside.

Dürrenmatt provides a sardonic ending to this story.  
Not just content to allow his readers to witness the
decline and fall of a once great inspector, he is now also
intent on adding an absurdist twist that further disrupts
the conventions of the genre.   And if the reader had
any doubts where our author stands, Dürrenmatt inserts
this entire narrative into a framing story that
incorporates a critique of the detective genre as a
whole.   The end result is an almost quintessential post-
modern mystery, one that deserves to stand alongside
the finer works of
Paul Auster and Umberto Eco.  

In truth, the surprising denouement presents something
even more unsettling than a criminal who evades justice.
Dürrenmatt  puts other things on trial here—not just
human reason and our problem-solving capacity, but
also personal ambitions and ethical considerations.  By
showing their incapacity, he arrives at an endpoint more
disturbing than any mere unsolved crime might possess.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
Click on image to purchase
Further Clues:

Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Web Page at the University of
Chicago Press

Interview with Friedrich Dürrenmatt by Violet Ketels

Review of Sean Penn's film version of The Pledge by
Roger Ebert
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

Peter Ackroyd

Douglas Adams
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective

Martin Amis
London Fields

Paul Auster
The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

Jean-Patrick Manchette
The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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