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This volume offers bracing new translations of two precursors to the modern detective novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose genre-bending mysteries recall the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and anticipate the postmodern fictions of Paul Auster and other contemporary neo-noir novelists. Both mysteries follow Inspector Barlach as he moves through worlds in which the distinction between crime and justice seems to have vanished. In The Judge and His Hangman, Barlach forgoes the arrest of a murderer in order to manipulate...
This volume offers bracing new translations of two precursors to the modern detective novel by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, whose genre-bending mysteries recall the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and anticipate the postmodern fictions of Paul Auster and other contemporary neo-noir novelists. Both mysteries follow Inspector Barlach as he moves through worlds in which the distinction between crime and justice seems to have vanished. In The Judge and His Hangman, Barlach forgoes the arrest of a murderer in order to manipulate him into killing another, more elusive criminal. And in Suspicion, Barlach pursues a former Nazi doctor by checking into his clinic with the hope of forcing him to reveal himself. The result is two thrillers that bring existential philosophy and the detective genre into dazzling convergence.
"Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) was best known as the author of clever, morally inquisitive plays such as 'The Visit' and 'The Physicists.' In the early 1950s he also wrote three short, spellbinding mystery novels, which the University of Chicago Press has reissued in paperback with new translations from the German by Joel Agee: The Pledge and The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman & Suspicion. The latter includes a thoughtful foreword by Sven Birkerts, who praises Dürrenmatt's talent as a captivating entertainer who could also 'play through complex moral issues with a speed-chess decisiveness and inexorability.' . . . These are slender tales. But they have the weight and texture of classics. Mystery readers should be grateful to the University of Chicago Press for bringing these gems back to life."—Richard Lipez, Washington Post
— Richard Lipez
On the morning of November third, 1948, Alphons Clenin, the policeman of the village of Twann, came upon a blue Mercedes parked by the side of the highway right by the woods where the road from Lamboing comes out of the Twann River gorge. It was one of those foggy mornings of which there were many in that late fall, and Clenin had already walked past the car when he decided to have another look. He had casually glanced through the clouded windows and had the impression that he had seen the driver slumped over the wheel. Being a decent and levelheaded fellow, he immediately assumed the man was drunk and decided to give him a helping hand instead of a summons. He would wake him, drive him to Twann, and sober him up with some soup and black coffee at the Bear Inn. For while drunk driving was forbidden by law, drunk sleeping in a stationary car by the side of the road was not forbidden. Clenin opened the door and laid a fatherly hand on the stranger's shoulder. At that moment he noticed that the man was dead. He had been shot through the temples. And now Clenin saw that the door by the passenger seat was unlatched. There was little blood in the car and the dead man's dark-gray coat wasn't even stained. The gleaming edge of a yellow wallet stuck out of the inside pocket. Clenin pulled it out and had no trouble establishing that the dead man was Ulrich Schmied, a police lieutenant from Bern.
Clenin didn't quite know what to do. As a village policeman, he had never had to deal with violence of this magnitude. He paced back and forth by the side of the road. When the rising sun broke through the mist and shone on the corpse, it made him uncomfortable. He went back to the car, picked up the gray felt hat that lay at the dead man's feet, and pulled it down over his head until he could no longer see the pierced temples. Now he felt better.
The policeman again crossed over to the side of the road facing Twann, and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then he made a decision. He shifted the dead man onto the passenger seat, carefully propped him up, fastened him with a leather strap he found in the back of the car, and sat down behind the wheel.
The motor wouldn't start, but Clenin easily coasted the car down the steep road to Twann and stopped by the gas station in front of the Bear. The attendant never noticed that the distinguished-looking man sitting motionless in the front seat was dead. That was just fine with Clenin. He hated scandals.
But as he drove along the edge of the lake toward Biel, the fog thickened again, the sun disappeared, and the morning turned dark as Judgment Day. Clenin found himself in a long line of cars that for some inexplicable reason were driving even more slowly than the weather required. Almost like a funeral procession, he thought involuntarily. The corpse sat motionless at his side, except for moments when a bump in the road made him nod like an Oriental sage. This made Clenin less and less inclined to pass the cars ahead of him. They reached Biel much later than he had expected.
While the routine investigation of the Schmied case got under way in Biel, the sad facts were conveyed to Inspector Barlach, who had been the dead man's superior in Bern.
Barlach had lived abroad for many years and had made a name for himself as a criminologist, first in Constantinople and later in Germany. His last job there had been as chief of the crime division of the Frankfurt am Main police, but he had come back to his native city as early as 1933. The reason for his return was not his love of Bern-his golden grave, as he often called it-but a slap he had given a high-ranking official of the new German government. This vicious assault was the talk of Frankfurt for a while. Opinions in Bern, always sensitive to the shifts in European politics, judged it first as an inexcusable outrage, then as a deplorable but understandable act, and finally-in 1945-as the only possible thing a Swiss could have done.
Barlach's first action in the Schmied case was to instruct his subordinates to maintain complete secrecy for the first few days-an order which it took all his prestige and authority to enforce. "We know too little," he said, "and besides, newspapers are the most superfluous invention of the last two thousand years."
Barlach evidently expected this secret procedure to bring results, in contrast to his "boss," Dr. Lucius Lutz, who lectured in criminology at the university. This official, the son of an ancient Bern family who owed their fortune to the beneficent interference of a rich uncle from Basel, had just returned from a visit to the police departments of New York and Chicago and was "appalled at the antedeluvian state of crime prevention in the federal capital of Switzerland," as he publicly stated to Police Commissioner Freiberger on the occasion of a joint ride home in the streetcar.
That same morning, after another call to the Biel police, Barlach paid a visit to the Schönlers, the family in whose house on Bantigerstrasse Schmied had rented a room. As usual, he walked through the old part of town and across the Nydegg bridge, for in his opinion Bern was much too small a city for "streetcars and suchlike."
Climbing the stone steps at Haspelstrasse tired him a little. Moments like this had a way of reminding him that he was over sixty. But soon he found himself at his destination and rang the bell.
It was Frau Schönler herself who opened the door, a short, fat lady not without a certain distinction and dignity. She immediately let Barlach in, for she knew him.
"Schmied had to go away on business last night," Barlach said. "He had to leave quickly, so he asked me to send something on to him. Kindly take me to his room, Frau Schönler."
The lady nodded, and they walked down the hall past a picture in a heavy gold frame. Barlach glanced at it; it was Böcklin's Island of the Dead.
"So where is Herr Schmied?" the fat woman asked as she opened the room.
"Abroad," Barlach said, looking up at the ceiling.
The room was on the ground floor, with a view through a doorway onto a small garden planted with old brown fir trees that were apparently sick, for the ground was densely covered with needles. No doubt this was the best room in the house. Barlach went to the desk and looked around once more. One of the dead man's ties lay on the couch.
"He's gone to the tropics, hasn't he, Herr Barlach," Frau Schönler asked, unable to suppress her curiosity. The question startled him. "No, he's not in the tropics, he's a bit higher up."
Frau Schönler opened her eyes wide and clapped her hands over her head. "My God! In the Himalayas?"
"Close," Barlach said. "You almost guessed it." He opened a folder that was lying on the desk and immediately tucked it under his arm.
"Did you find what you wanted to send Herr Schmied?"
He looked around again, avoiding a second glance at the necktie.
"He is the best tenant we have ever had, and there has never been any trouble with lady visitors and such," Frau Schönler assured him.
Barlach went to the door. "I'll send an officer around now and then or come by myself. Schmied has some other important documents that we may need."
"Do you think he'll send me a postcard from abroad?" Frau Schönler wanted to know. "My son collects stamps."
Barlach looked at Frau Schönler with a pensive frown. "It's very unlikely," he said. "Policemen usually don't send postcards when they're traveling on duty. It's not allowed."
Thereupon Frau Schönler again clapped her hands over her head and remarked with exasperation, "The things they forbid nowadays!"
Barlach left and was glad to leave the house behind him.
Deeply absorbed in thought, he ate his lunch in the Café du Théâtre instead of his favorite restaurant, the Schmiedstube, leafing through Schmied's folder as he ate and reading some pages with close attention. Then, after a brief walk along the Bundesterrasse, he returned to his office at two o'clock, where he was informed that Schmied's body had arrived from Biel. However, he decided not to pay a visit to his former subordinate. He did not much care for corpses and therefore generally left them in peace. He would have also gladly done without a visit to Lutz, but this one he could not avoid. He carefully locked Schmied's folder in his desk without examining it any further, lit a cigar, and went to Lutz's office, well knowing how Lutz always resented the liberty the old man took by smoking in his room. Only once, years ago, had Lutz dared to object, but Barlach with a dismissive gesture replied that he had served ten years in Turkey and had always smoked in the offices of his superiors in Constantinople, a remark that carried all the more weight in that there was no way to disprove it.
Dr. Lucius Lutz received Barlach nervously, since in his opinion nothing had yet been done, and offered him a comfortable chair near his desk.
"No news from Biel yet?" Barlach asked.
"Nothing yet," Lutz replied.
"I wonder why not," Barlach said. "They're working like crazy."
Barlach sat down and glanced at the pictures by Traffelet on the walls, tinted pen-and-ink drawings of soldiers under a large waving flag, sometimes with a general, sometimes without, marching either from left to right or else from right to left.
"It is an alarming," Lutz began, "indeed an increasingly frightening thing to behold the degree to which criminology in this country is still in its infancy. God knows I'm used to inefficiency in our canton, but the procedure that is evidently considered the natural course to take in the case of a murdered police lieutenant casts such an appalling light on the professional competence of our village police that I am still horrified."
"Rest assured, Dr. Lutz," Barlach replied, "our village police are as fit for their job as the police in Chicago, and I'm certain we'll find out who killed Schmied."
"Do you have someone in mind as a suspect, Inspector Barlach?"
Barlach gazed at Lutz for a long time and finally said, "Yes, I have someone in mind, Doctor Lutz."
"I can't tell you yet."
"Well, that's very interesting," Lutz said, "I know that you are always prepared, Inspector Barlach, to prettify some blunder committed in disregard of modern scientific criminology. But don't forget that time marches on and will not stop for anyone, not even for the most famous criminologist. I have seen crimes in New York and Chicago the likes of which you in our dear old Bern have never imagined. But now a police lieutenant has been murdered, and that is a sure sign that here too, the walls of public security are beginning to crack, and surely that calls for ruthless measures."
"Certainly," Barlach replied, "that is what I am doing."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that," Lutz replied.
A clock was ticking on the wall.
Barlach gingerly pressed his left hand on his belly and with his right hand extinguished his cigar in the ashtray Lutz had set before him. He told Lutz that for some time now he had not been in the best of health, and that his doctor was starting to worry about him. It was stomach trouble, he said, and he would be grateful if Dr. Lutz would appoint someone who could assist him with the legwork in the Schmied murder case, so that Barlach could work from his desk. Lutz agreed. "Whom do you want as your assistant?"
"Tschanz," Barlach said. "He's on vacation in the Bernese Oberland, but we could recall him."
Lutz replied, "Good idea. Tschanz is a man who works hard at keeping up with the latest advances in criminology."
Then he turned his back on Barlach and gazed out the window at the broad expanse of the Waisenhausplatz, which was full of children.
Suddenly he felt an irresistible urge to argue with Barlach about the value of modern scientific criminology. He turned around, but Barlach had already left.
Even though it was close to five already, Barlach decided to drive to the scene of the crime. He took Blatter along, a tall bloated policeman who never spoke a word, whom Barlach liked for that reason, and who also drove the car. In Twann they were welcomed by Clenin, who was looking defiant in anticipation of a reprimand. But the inspector was friendly, shook his hand and said it was a pleasure to meet a man who knew how to think for himself. These words made Clenin proud, though he wasn't quite sure what the old man meant by them. He led Barlach up the road toward the scene of the crime. Blatter lagged behind, disgruntled at having to walk.
Barlach wondered about the name of the town, Lamboing.
"It's Lamlingen in German," Clenin informed him.
"I see," said Barlach. "That sounds much better."
They arrived at the scene of the murder. On their right, the side of the road facing Twann was lined by a wall.
"Where was the car, Clenin?"
"Here," the policeman replied, pointing at the pavement, "almost in the middle of the road," and, since Barlach was hardly paying any attention, "Maybe it would have been better if I had left the car here with the body inside."
"Why?" Barlach asked, looking up at the cliffs of the Jura mountains. "The dead should be removed as quickly as possible, there's no reason why they should stick around. You were right to drive Schmied back to Biel."
Barlach stepped to the edge of the road and looked down over Twann. There was nothing but vineyards between him and the old village. The sun had already set. The road curved like a snake between the houses, and a long freight train stood waiting in the station.
"Didn't anyone hear anything down there, Clenin?" he asked. "The village is nearby. You would hear a shot."
"No one heard anything except the sound of the motor running all night, and no one thought that meant anything bad had happened."
"Of course not, why would they." He looked at the vineyards again. "How is the wine this year, Clenin?"
"Good. We could try some."
"Yes, I would very much like a glass of new wine."
And he struck against something hard with his right foot. He bent down and picked up a small, longish piece of metal flattened in the front, and held it between his thin fingers. Clenin and Blatter leaned in to look at it more closely.
"A bullet," Blatter said. "From a pistol."
"You've done it again, Inspector!" Clenin said admiringly.
"Just a coincidence," Barlach said, and they walked down the road toward Twann.
Apparently the new wine did not agree with Barlach, for he declared the next morning that he had been throwing up all night. Lutz, who met the inspector on the stairs, was genuinely concerned for his well-being and advised him to go the doctor.
"Sure, sure," Barlach mumbled, adding that he liked doctors even less than modern scientific criminology.
Once he was in his office he felt better. He sat down behind his desk, unlocked his drawer, and pulled out the dead man's folder.
At ten o'clock-Barlach was still immersed in his reading-Tschanz came to see him. He had returned from his vacation late the previous night.
Barlach started at the sight of him. For a moment it had seemed as if the dead Schmied had come into the room. Tschanz was wearing the same coat as Schmied's and a similar felt hat. Only the round and good-natured face was different.
"Good thing you're here, Tschanz," Barlach said. "We have to discuss the Schmied case. You'll have to take over most of the job, I'm not well."
"Yes, I've already heard," said Tschanz.
Tschanz pulled up a chair and sat down, resting his left arm on Barlach's desk. Schmied's folder was lying open on the desk.
Barlach leaned back in his chair. "To you I can speak frankly," he began. "I've come across thousands of policemen, good ones and bad ones, between Constantinople and Bern. Many were no better than the poor bastards we populate the jails with, except that they happen to be on the other side of the law. But Schmied was in a class of his own, he had real talent. He could have put us all in his pocket. He had a clear mind, he knew what he wanted, and he kept it to himself. He spoke only when it was necessary. We have to emulate him, Tschanz, he was way ahead of us."
Tschanz slowly turned his head toward Barlach, for he had been looking out the window, and said, "That could be."
Barlach saw that he was not convinced.
"We don't know much about his death," the inspector continued, "this bullet is all we've got." And he told him where he had found the bullet, and placed it on the desk. Tschanz picked it up and looked at it.
Excerpted from THE INSPECTOR BARLACH MYSTERIES by Friedrich Dürrenmatt Copyright © 1986 by Diogenes Verlag AG, Zürich. Excerpted by permission.
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Foreword by Sven Birkerts
The Judge and His Hangman