THE JUDGE AND HIS HANGMAN (1950) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Originally published in German in 1950 as ‘Der Richter und sein Henker’ by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, this was the first of two books featuring Kommissar Hans Bärlach of the Berne police (they have since been collected in an omnibus volume as ‘The Inspector Barlach Mysteries’). Dürrenmatt is probably better known as a playwright than as a novelist, though among the latter are three exceptional excursions into the crime and mystery genre (The Quarry and The Pledge are the others). They are all notable for their seriousness of intent and their desire to use the form to engage with existential themes and ethical issues.

“He spun round to face his visitor again but Bärlach was no longer there”

** As this my first review of a work in translation, and English being strictly speaking my second language, I thought I should  specify the edition of the book I have. The 1955 American edition of this book had a translation by Therese Pol (as per the cover above), but I have been reading the earlier version by Cyrus Brooks first published in 1954 in the UK and later reprinted by Penguin (see the cover below). It has a few variant spellings compared with the American edition but I have retained everything from the British edition with a single exception – I have restored the umlaut to the protagonist’s name.

This case, from the outset, proves to be extremely personal for Bärlach. He is in fact investigating the murder of Ulrich Schmied, one of his own officers, after the man is found one morning in a remote country lane inside his car, shot through the head. Bärlach is plagued by serious intestinal complaints and so hands over much of the legwork to Chanz, an officer with a strong will and several chips on his shoulder. This initial setup, a working partnership of the Holmes and Watson variety, resembles the subsequent pairing of Morse and Lewis – like Colin Dexter’s great creation, Bärlach goes by intuition rather than standard police procedure and established investigative method, and has an aversion to dead bodies. Chanz however is much more of a plodder. He and Chanz intriguingly agree to pursue the investigation along parallel but separate lines –  Bärlach almost immediately thinks he knows who killed Schmied but lacking in evidence he won’t disclose what he think until Chanz uncovers evidence to back him up. But like Dexter’s Morse, the old Inspector is hiding several secrets and is in fact manipulating events, and his officers, for his own ends towards a personal sense of justice.

“”The fog thickened again, the sun was blotted out and the morning grew as grey as Judgement Day.”

Bärlach and Chanz track Schmied’s movements to a high-class party held in the small town of Lamlingen and discover that he was, under an assumed name, spying on Gastmann, a diplomat with powerful business and political connections, a man literally rich enough to pay the taxes for the entire village. Their first attempt at a meeting proves inauspicious when the inspector is attached by a giant guard dog and the animal is shot by Chanz. This enrages the upper crust members of the party at the house, from which the two policemen are pointedly excluded. We later learn that the shady goings on in there involve secret negotiations with foreign powers, so pressure is quickly brought to bear  to wind up the case without embarrassing Gastmann or his guests. But there is much more to this than meets the first meets the eye.

“I shall never stop hunting you. One day I shall get you.”

While the book is probably partly inspired by the police procedurals of Simenon and has a pleasingly complex plot, Dürrenmatt is much more interested in exploring the ends of justice and creates a somewhat far-fetched scenario to question moral absolutism. The plot it turns out involves a personal feud, one that goes back some forty years to Bärlach’s earliest days as a police officer. In their youth he and his eventual nemesis (we never find out his real name) – presented as a specular version of himself (with echoes of Holmes and Moriarty of course) – debated the morality of crime and punishment and, rather like Bruno in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (also originally from 1950), one man decides to murder another, seemingly just to make the point that he can do it in such a way to ensure that he will never be caught. As we explore the ramifications of this life-long battle, and we realise that Bärlach may have been at least partially responsible for Schmied’s death, we become unsure about the motives of the hero, his nemesis and how far these actually relate to the murder investigation.

This summary might make some think that the book is too schematic to really engage the reader purely on a narrative level, but this is never the case. Along the way there are several intriguing clues – what happened to the dog, why was Bärlach covered in bandages that night, why does he give in so easily to pressure not to investigate Gastmann – and the many apparent inconsistencies are satisfactorily explained in a finale that springs a clever surprise on the reader. On top if its well-detailed and compact story, about the length of a Maigret novel, The Judge and His Hangman also manages to fuse detection and philosophy fairly successfully. In its combination of a plausible depiction of a Swiss society in transition in the immediate post-war period (Bärlach’s boss keeps going on about how antiquated their police methods are), political chicanery and depiction of man’s potential for inhumanity, it explores the philosophical foundations of the detective story with great acumen and ingenuity.

As the book came out before 1960, this review is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge

In 1975 the novel was turned into a quirky film by actor-director Maximilian Schell from a screenplay co-written by Dürrenmatt. Released theatrically in English-speaking territories as End of the Game, I will be reviewing it soon in a separate post.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Colin Dexter, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Georges Simenon, Inspector Morse, Maigret, Police procedural, Switzerland, Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to THE JUDGE AND HIS HANGMAN (1950) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

  1. Bill Selnes says:

    Sergio: I found The Pledge an interesting book with its probe into investigating obsession. I found I was left uncomfortable. I expect that was the author’s purpose. From the quote above it appears there is a touch of the obsessive in the investigators of this book.

    It was hard to find The Pledge in Saskatchewan. After reading the book I saw there was a movie made of The Pledge which appeared to be a box office disaster, possibly as they altered the book and moved the setting to the western U.S. By chance, have you seen the movie?

    • Hello Bill, thanks very much for the comments. The Pledge was effectively Dürrenmatt’s farewell to the mystery genre and he referred to it as a ‘Requiem for the Detective Novel’. All three of his mysteries are about ‘justice’ and in all three it is always a long time coming – 40 years in The Judge and His Hangman, over 10 in The Quarry, which deals with a Nazi war criminal, and of course The Pledge has its main character spend several years trying to track down a child killer and going mad in the process, though he is proved, not to his knowledge, to have been right all along. Sean Penn’s 2001 underrated film adaptation of it is actually pretty faithful – it is a despairing and sad story and I actually think it caught the essence of the book and in my view the shift to the US didn’t hurt it that much. All three of the books are highly distinctive and definitely worth getting if you can.

  2. Todd Mason says:

    I’d be happy to see what you’d like to contributed to tomorrow’s Overlooked films/A/V…I like to credit with full names, but if you prefer to remain simply Sergio, I can swing with that.

  3. Todd Mason says:

    Argh. I had a hellish weekend…and managed to skip right over this when putting together the list for FFB. I will belatedly add it…sorry about that.

  4. Pingback: The End of the Game (1975) | Tipping My Fedora

  5. Pingback: Review: The Inspector Barlach Mysteries (The Judge and His Hangman + Suspicion) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt | The Game's Afoot

  6. Pingback: THE PLEDGE (1958) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt | Tipping My Fedora

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