This is a police procedural with a real difference. The story of an investigation that goes wrong, it tries to bring the reality of crime investigation (circa 1958) in a face-off with the conventions of the mystery genre. Indeed, it was originally published in German as Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman, so the full title should be The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel. However, the subtitle is usually omitted despite the fact that it is such a crucial indicator of its aims and ambitions. For example, you can see it is absent from my rather nice-looking Penguin paperback (on the right), featuring a cover by George Mayhew (1921-1971), translated by Clara and Richard Winston for the US edition first published by Knopf in 1959.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Movie meme over at his fab Sweet Freedom blog – you should head over there right now.
“You writers have always sacrificed truth for the sake of your dramatic rules. it’s time you threw those rules out the window.”
Not wishing to put off traditional mystery fans with suggestions of any modern malarkey, this is none the less a poststructuralist novel, one in which the telling of the tale within a tale, within a tale, is carefully used to provide a distancing effect to comment on the conventions of the detective story. Its success however, and it is richly deserved, comes from Dürrenmatt’s ability to still make you care about the characters and the themes while your brain considers the implication of its ancillary genre critique. This aspect of the book came through an unusual route. Dürrenmatt wrote the original screenplay for a film released in 1958 as Es geschah am hellichten Tag (in English it is known as It Happened in Broad Daylight – you can view the film in German here). In it a retired detective sets out to trap a serial killer by buying a petrol station on the road he believes the man must have used for his previous murders and uses a young girl as bait. The author however was unhappy with changes made to his story (specifically the imposition of a traditional happy ending) and so re-told the story in The Pledge.
“A vague, planless fury had brought the peasants together. They wanted vengeance, justice”.
Although the story is ostensibly about a murder investigation by Inspector Matthäi, it is offered as a detailed case history by a retired police chief (known only ny the initial ‘H’) as a corrective to some of author Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s own genre preconceptions … H has listened to a lecture by the author on detective fiction and offers to drive him home. On the way he rebukes him for the unreality of fictional precepts and offers, by way of rebuttal, the story of a genius crimesolver undone by his methods. Matthäi is a veteran of the force and something of a legend who in a couple of days is getting a promotion and being posted to Jordan. He can’t however let go of his last case – a young girl was slashed to death and he swore to her mother that he would see justice done. His replacement, eager-beaver Heinz, pins the murder on a pedlar who said he found the body in the woods. After giving him the third degree and keeping him up for 24 hours, the man finally confesses and kills himself in the cell. Matthäi believes the man innocent and hatches a cruel scheme in his own time to force the serial killer out into the open, sooner or later. As it turns out, it will be much, much later …
“Isn’t there something diabolic about your plan?” I asked timidly after a long pause.
“Possibly,” he retorted.
In some ways the novel reads like an inversion of the author’s celebrated mystery classic, The Judge and his Hangman (which I previously reviewed here), in much the same way that John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy seems like a retelling of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from the point of view of the mole. In Judge the old investigator on his last case started behaving very oddly, even madly (somewhat Hamlet-like) but ultimately a pattern is revealed, showing how he planned all along to catch a murderer and was ultimately vindicated. This is replicated here, except that there is only vindication for the reader, not for the detective or those he sought to help – they are left in a permanent state of limbo, never knowing the solution, driven mad or utterly indifferent by the process of trying to reach a conclusion.
“But you must be asking yourself what my story has to do with the criticism I made of your lecture, and why I should have called Matthäi a genius.”
The approach thus might make some think of writers like Paul Auster, and there are similarities, but Dürrenmatt never lets the plot get away from him – we do get a proper solution, one that is very ironic but which comes across as quite plausible, in a Simenon-like fashion, though the narrator H only learns of it inadvertently through a deathbed confession and not via any deductive reasoning. But in providing the resolution that Dürrenmatt (and we, the readers) want, he constantly reminds us that this is not the point as it did Matthäi no good, brought no extra closure to the family and brought misery to those who got mixed up in the plan to catch a killer who was never brought to justice (this is not much of a spoiler by the way). He even suggests mockingly various ways Dürrenmatt might bend it fictionally to make it work ‘better’ in a humorous scene that will none the less resonate with all readers who want their crime stories to end in a surprise … but only within certain parameters. Very clever stuff, very articulate and stimulating – a classic of its kind.
The novel has been adapted several times for film and TV – the most recent starred Jack Nicholson and was directed by Sean Penn. This is a very slow-moving version that dispenses with the framing device entirely but is otherwise pretty faithful despite its relocation to the US. We begin mysteriously in a dusty gas station where Nicholson mutters endlessly to himself, alone and unkept. We then flashback to the start of tale. He is Jerry Black, who on the day before he is due to retire starts to investigate the case of a murdered girl and is unconvinced when an itinerant man (played by Benicio Del Toro in one of his more impenetrable accents) confesses after a long interrogation. The case never goes to trial as he shoots himself while in custody. Jerry decides not to retire but to devote himself to solving the case. Beautifully shot in widescreen on location in British Columbia by Chris Menges (along with Nestor Almendros probably the greatest cinematographer of the last 40 years), the slow pace is nicely broken up with a long series of cameos by such stellar actors as Helen Mirren as a psychiatrist; Mickey Rourke as the grieving father of a missing blonde-haired child who Beck thinks probably also meet the same fate as the girl; Vanessa Redgrave as the grandmother of the victim; and not least Aaron Eckhart as Jerry’s hotshot replacement on the force. It is a little overlong at two hours perhaps but the powerful story is well told, Penn showing a masterful grip on the material and on the disparate acting styles of his large cast.
DVD Availability: Available on an a good quality DVD that is easy to find internationally but sadly with no extras.
The Pledge (2001)
Director: Sean Penn
Producer: Michael Fitzgerald, Sean Penn, Elie Samaha
Screenplay: Jerzy Kromolowski, Mary Olson-Kromolowski
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Art Direction: Bill Groom
Music: Hans Zimmer, Klaus Badelt
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Robin Wright Penn, Aaron Eckhart, Helen Mirren,Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, Benicio Del Toro, Patricia Clarkson, Mickey Rourke, Harry Dean Stanton
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘made into a movie’ category: