Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Pledge, by Friedrich Durrenmatt

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Friedrich Durrenmatt's gripping 1958 thriller, The Pledge, will have you in its thrall, from first page to last.

In the opening pages of The Pledge the author describes meeting an old chief of police from Zurich, a Dr. H. The two sit in a bar having coffee and cream. The chief relates an old murder case:

It was in the Swiss mountain village of Magendorf that a terrible crime occurred. A little girl named Gritli Moser was  gruesomely murdered in the nearby woods, slashed with a razor. It was the third murder of a little girl in so many years, all executed in a similar manner and obviously the work of a serial killer. The prime suspect of the murder was a peddler named von Gunten who discovered the body. He was seen as guilty due to his history: he had a conviction for child molestation, of a 14-year-old girl. Von Gunten was taken in for questioning, but staunchly denied the charge. Under intense interrogation, the peddler finally admitted to the murder and then committed suicide.

It seemed a clear-cut case, but as inspector Matthai took over the investigation, he was not so sure. In fact, he became convinced that von Gunten did not commit the crime and that the real killer was still at large. He felt it his moral duty to find the real killer. His timing was bad, however, as he was due to take on an important overseas post. He turned his back on this new assignment, remained in the town of Magendorf and started a steady descent into madness and alcoholism. He never found the killer.

First published in 1958, Friedrich Durrenmatt's gripping crime novel reads like it was written only yesterday. It has a cleverly constructed design, that of a narrative within a narrative, that ticks like clockwork. It marries breathtaking suspense with realistic psychological portraits. The novel is also rich in atmospherics; it's air of suffocating menace and perversity haunts the reader throughout.

The novel has one big theme: it criticises the neat and contrived plots of regular crime novels. Durrenmatt says that life if often absurd and ridiculous. Our need for neat answers and tidy endings is not realistic. The author weaves this philosophical outlook into the plot by having Matthai become irrationally consumed by the case of Gritli Rosen, yet unable to solve her murder.

Intellectually fascinating, aesthetically satisfying, gripping from the first page to the last, The Pledge is a crime novel that you can't put down.

The Pledge, by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Translated by Joel Agee. Published by Pushkin. ISBN:  9781782273394  RRP: $19.99

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