Detective Story

Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian-born novelist who won the Nobel Prize in 2002, offers a slim, dark, and haunting novella about crime and punishment in a totalitarian state. At 112 pages, it’s light enough to be consumed in a sitting. Its aftermath may linger a lot longer. The setup is this: Detective Story is actually the story of a detective who finds himself in jail for his participation in the execution of two prominent citizens. The corrupt government for which he has executed them has been overthrown and a new one installed. Now it’s the detective’s turn to be condemned. While he waits in jail, he writes out the story of events leading up to the killing, delving into the murdered boy’s diary, which he has kept. We get glimpses of the machinations of the system around him, but there is a great deal left deliberately vague: the detective describes and explores the boy’s fascinating, troubled spirit, but leaves much of the state of terror encompassing them both to our inference. The whole novella nominally takes place in an unnamed Central or South American country, and the surnames are vaguely Spanish. But the blurred setting — we might be in any troubled country undergoing upheaval — lends the story considerable darkness and makes its meditations on moral ambiguity seem universally applicable. There’s an old adage: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what about mere embeddedness? What is the power — or the responsibility — of the cog in the wheel? The detective doesn’t plead his innocence. But as he waits for his own execution, the questions of justice that hang in the balance are the ones that beg to be unraveled. –