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!