The Pledge
by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
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."
Essay 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
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 opposite
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 Godard's
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
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 writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His  latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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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
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In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
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Special Topics in Calamity Physics

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The Erasers
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The Day of the Owl
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Mulligan Stew

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Miguel Syjuco

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Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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