At number 17 in my countdown of 20 greatest crime novels is Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s haunting, meta-fictional mystery The Pledge (1958). Prior to writing the novel, Dürrenmatt had long been a vocal critic of the genre and its conventions. In particular, he found it difficult to reconcile the neat and tidy resolutions often found in detective novels with the inherent chaos and incomprehensibility of real life and real crime. It is no surprise then that The Pledge is a somewhat unconventional detective novel, one that deliberately defies the possibility of logical solutions.
The novel is structured as a frame narrative, one that begins with a fictional Dürrenmatt interviewing a former “chief of police in the canton of Zurich” as part of research for a detective novel. Rather than encouraging the author, the former chief of police criticises the institution of crime fiction for creating a fantasy of order and resolution that is inapplicable to the real world:
“People hope that at least the police know how to order the world—I can imagine no more pathetic hope—but unfortunately in all these detective stories there is another quite different swindle going on—I don’t even mean the fact that your criminals will be brought to justice. This delightful fairy tale is no doubt morally necessary. It is one of the lies that keep the state going, as does the pious saying, crime doesn’t pay—whereas in fact you only have to look at human society to see the truth on that score”
The former chief of police gradually assumes the role of primary narrator and proceeds to tell a cautionary tail of a former police inspector, Detective Matthäi, who on his last day with the department is called to investigate a brutal child murder. Although a suspect soon comes forward confessing to the murder, Matthäi’s experience and instincts tell him that the real culprit is still at large. Having promised the victim’s parents that he would find the culprit and bring him to justice, Matthäi continues his own private and unsanctioned investigation into the crime, even after the case has been officially closed.
Suspecting a connection between the crime and other child disappearances and murders, what unfolds over the course of the novel is a paranoid and sombre tail of obsession, solitude and duty. Matthäi becomes entirely consumed by the hunt for the true killer, despite the fact that other’s dismiss the legitimacy of his investigation and see his obsession as evidence of some form of early onset psychosis. In may ways The Pledge is a heartbreaking novel, one that that is gripping despite it almost plodding pace. Without wanting to spoil anything, the ending to the novel is certainly one of the main reasons to read this text. It is both brilliant and utterly desperate and certainly magnifies Dürrenmatt’s clear frustration with the myth of resolution often propagated by detective fiction.
Although a little unconventional, The Pledge is an excellent novel, one that i think would please both purists and fans of more unconventional or ‘metaphysical’ detective fiction. Sean Penn’s adaptation of the book starring Jack Nicholson (also called The Pledge) is also worth a watch!
In at number #18 is E.C. Bentley’s comic masterpiece Trent’s Last Case (1913). Once described by Agatha Christie as ‘one of the three best detective stories ever written’, E.C Bentley’s classic ‘whodunit’ is often heralded as the prototypical ‘Golden Age’ detective novel. Featuring an urbane, genius detective and located within the typically closed, almost claustrophobic domestic environment, Bentley’s novel very much anticipates and heavily influences the later and more fully realized works of classic golden age writers such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.
The central mystery of the text concerns the bizarre murder of entrepreneur Sigsbee Manderson, whose body is discovered on the grounds of his country house estate with a single bullet wound through the eye. No murder weapon is found, however the body does exhibit signs of a struggle, with scratches and bruises around the wrists. There are also seemingly inexplicable clues; Manderson’s pocket watch is discovered in the wrong pocket, his false teeth are missing and he is oddly dressed in a combination of day and evening clothes. This is of course a shocking sartorial irregularity according to Manderson’s servants, who all testify to him being such a neat and discerning dresser.
With the police unable to distinguish any clear suspects or discernible motive for the attack, charismatic artist and amateur detective Phillip Trent is summoned to intervene. Bentley immediately establishes Trent as a comparable figure to archetypal armchair sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, able to solve the most impenetrable mysteries through a reliance on his superior powers of deductive logic and bizarre expertise in obscure fields of knowledge such as ‘good shoe leather’. Despite these superficial displays of genius, Trent is ultimately a comic figure, one who bumbles through the case misinterpreting clues and implicating the wrong suspects. A desperate romantic, he also makes the mistake of falling in love with a prime suspect – the dead millionaire’s widow, Mabel.
In many way’s Trent’s Last Case is more interesting for the ways it subverts the expectations and conventions of the detective format than for the ways it conforms to them. Not only is amateur sleuth Phillip Trent unable to successfully solve the central mystery, but the novel pushes the parameters of ‘fair play’ to such an extent that it is similarly impossible for the reader. Notions of logic and reason are replaced by chance and coincidence, whilst seemingly concrete clues become unstable and open to interpretation. Trent’s Last Case is a witty and thoroughly enjoyable novel that has a complex and surprising denouement, one that deliberately defies logic and reason. The unforeseeable solution to the mystery ultimately leads Trent to bemoan the ‘impotence of human reason’ and vow ‘never to touch a crime mystery again’.
Despite such pronouncements, luckily Trent does return in both Trent’s Own Case (1936) and Trent Intervenes (1938) – the latter a collection of short stories. Featuring a number of satisfying mysteries that provide a welcome comeback for the charismatic and charming detective, these later stories nonetheless fail to replicate the ingenuity and originality of Bentley’s first Trent mystery. Over a century after its initial publication, Trent’s Last Case still remains a humorous, sophisticated and gripping masterpiece of detective fiction, with Trent himself still one of our most compelling, charming and multifaceted detectives. A must read for fans of ‘Golden-Age’ or ‘Country House’ detective fiction.