Steve Mosby is the author of six excellent crime novels, with his seventh, Dark Room, out in July from Orion. He blogs at The Left Room and can be found most days on Twitter, providing erudite social commentary and dirty jokes.
Steve’s Criminal Classic is The Pledge byFriedrich Durrenmatt…
The bare bones and plot beats of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novel The Pledge will be immediately familiar to fans of detective fiction. A little girl is murdered; the inspector in charge of the investigation, Matthai, is a precise man of logic and something of a genius, but is disliked by his colleagues and on the verge of transfer; alone in believing they have arrested the wrong man, he leaves the police and begins a painstaking personal search to unearth the serial killer he believes is really responsible… So far, so conventional. But taken as a whole, The Pledge is anything but.
The bulk of Matthai’s story is framed as a conversation between a former police chief and a crime writer, the former seeking to illustrate how detective work in the real world is entirely different from its portrayal in fiction. The title can be understood in two ways. Most obviously, it refers to the promise Matthai makes to the girl’s parents that he will find their daughter’s killer (another familiar trope). But the book’s subtitle is “Requiem for the Detective Novel”, and ‘pledge’ also nods to the implicit promise of the traditional detective story: that a careful application of logic will solve the puzzle; that order will be restored and justice done. In this sense, what is pledged is that the reader will be removed from their comfort zone but ultimately returned.
Here, Matthai’s meticulous logic, rather than leading him to uncover the truth and catch the killer, is subverted by a cruel twist of fate entirely beyond his control. In the meantime, his search has become an obsession that will ultimately destroy his life and the lives of others. His pledge is broken – but the promise of the traditional detective story also remains unfulfilled. Where hardboiled fiction attacked the narrative from the streets, here Durrenmatt swings at it from a more existential angle, presenting the real world as a puzzle far too chaotic and unpredictable for even the smartest fictional sleuth to solve.
And yet, for all the bleakness of the ending, The Pledge is both satisfying and thought-provoking. The reader understands that although one puzzle has been set up and left unresolved (at least to Matthai), something larger and more interesting has been hinted at, and that is more than enough.
And to allay concerns, we should probably note: over fifty years later, the traditional detective novel remains alive and well, still puzzling away.
- Steve Mosby
The Criminal Classics series was prompted by a post which originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.