The Pledge

( 2 )

Overview

Set in a small town in Switzerland, The Pledge centers around the murder of a young girl and the detective who promises the victim’s mother he will find the perpetrator. After deciding the wrong man has been arrested for the crime, the detective lays a trap for the real killer—with all the patience of a master fisherman. But cruel turns of plot conspire to make him pay dearly for his pledge. Here Friedrich Dürrenmatt conveys his brilliant ear for dialogue and a devastating sense of timing and suspense. Joel ...

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Overview

Set in a small town in Switzerland, The Pledge centers around the murder of a young girl and the detective who promises the victim’s mother he will find the perpetrator. After deciding the wrong man has been arrested for the crime, the detective lays a trap for the real killer—with all the patience of a master fisherman. But cruel turns of plot conspire to make him pay dearly for his pledge. Here Friedrich Dürrenmatt conveys his brilliant ear for dialogue and a devastating sense of timing and suspense. Joel Agee’s skilled translation effectively captures the various voices in the original, as well as its chilling conclusion.

One of Dürrenmatt’s most diabolically imagined and constructed novels, The Pledge was adapted for the screen in 2000 in a film directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post - Richard Lipez
"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."
Spectator - John Coleman
"A stark essay in crime and pursuit, as terse and assured in construction as the best of Simenon.
Atlantic Monthly - Charles Rolo
"An unusual and arresting novel of crime and detection. Mr. Dürrenmatt is an accomplished and dramatic storyteller, and he has tucked into his short narrative some tantalizing moral questions."
Washington Post
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

The Guardian
"The Swiss essayist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-90) was a prolific writer of detective novels with a low regard for detective fiction. 'You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy.' Dürrenmatt's tale doesn't so much alter the rules as sweep all the figures to the floor. Three young girls, each with blond braids and red dresses, are found dismembered in the woods. A pattern seems to emerge, yet the attempt to catch the killer develops into a fruitless obsession which drives the head of the investigation insane. Dürrenmatt incorporates fairy-tale archetypes to distort the typical conventions of a psychological thriller—when little girls in red dresses skip off into the woods, should the investigation team focus their enquiries on a big, bad wolf? Not a book for anyone who likes a tidy conclusion, but as Dürrenmatt says: 'The only way to avoid getting crushed by absurdity, is to humbly include the absurd in our calculations.'"
Spectator
A stark essay in crime and pursuit, as terse and assured in construction as the best of Simenon.

— John Coleman

Atlantic Monthly
"An unusual and arresting novel of crime and d
— Charles Rolo
Richard Lipex
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.
— The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226174372
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 805,322
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–1990) was a prolific Swiss dramatist, novelist, and essayist. His Selected Writings, in three volumes, is also published by the University of Chicago Press. Joel Agee has translated numerous German authors into English. Sven Birkerts is the author of six books, including The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time.  He is editor of the journal AGNI and teaches writing at Harvard University.

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Read an Excerpt

THE PLEDGE


By Friedrich Dürrenmatt

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1986 Diogenes Verlag AG, Zürich
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-17437-2


Chapter One

Last March I had to give a lecture in Chur on the art of writing detective stories. My train pulled in just before nightfall, under low clouds, in a dreary blizzard. As if that wasn't enough, the roads were paved with ice. The lecture was being held in the hall of the Chamber of Commerce. There wasn't much of an audience, since Emil Staiger was lecturing in the school auditorium about Goethe's late period. I couldn't summon up the right mood, and neither could anyone else; several local residents left the room before I had ended my talk. After a brief chat with some members of the board of directors, two or three high-school teachers who also would have preferred the late Goethe, and a philanthropic lady who volunteered her services as manager of the Domestic Workers Alliance of Eastern Switzerland, I received my fee and traveling expenses and withdrew to the room I had been given at the Hotel Steinbock, near the train station—another dismal place. Except for a German financial newspaper and an old illustrated magazine, I couldn't find anything to read. The silence of the hotel was inhuman. Impossible to even think of falling asleep, because that would give rise to the fear of not waking again. A timeless, spectral night. It had stopped snowing outside, no movement anywhere, the street lamps were no longer swaying, not a puff of wind, no denizen of Chur, no animal, nothing at all, except for a single heaven-rending blast from the train station. I went to the bar to have another whiskey. There, in addition to the elderly barmaid, I found a man who introduced himself the moment I sat down. He was Dr. H., the former chief of police in the canton of Zurich, a large and heavy man, old-fashioned, with a gold watch chain running across his vest. Despite his age, his bristly hair was still black, his mustache bushy. He was sitting on one of the high chairs by the bar, drinking red wine, smoking a Bahianos, and addressing the barmaid by her first name. His voice was loud and his gestures were lively, a blunt and unfastidious sort of person who simultaneously attracted and repelled me. When it was nearly three o'clock and our first Johnnie Walker had been followed by four more, he offered to drive me to Zurich the next morning in his Ope1 Kapitan. Since I did not know the area around Chur or that whole part of Switzerland, I accepted the invitation. Dr. H. had come to Graubünden as a member of a federal commission, and since the weather had prevented his departure, he, too, had attended my lecture, about which he had nothing to say beyond remarking that I had "a rather awkward delivery."

We set out the next morning. At dawn, I had taken two Medomins to catch a little sleep, and now I felt virtually paralyzed. The day seemed still dark, though the sun had risen a while ago. There was a patch of metallic sky gleaming somewhere through a covering of dense, sluggishly lumbering, snow-filled clouds. Winter seemed unwilling to leave this part of the country. The city was surrounded by mountains, but there was nothing majestic about them; they rather resembled heaps of earth, as though someone had dug an immense grave. Chur itself was quite evidently made of stone, gray, with large government buildings. It seemed incredible to me that this was a wine-growing region. We tried to penetrate into the old inner city, but the heavy car strayed into a network of narrow lanes and one-way streets, and only a complex maneuver in reverse gear got us out of the tangle of houses. Moreover, the streets were icy, so we were glad to have the city behind us at last, although I had seen almost nothing of this old episcopal residence. It was like a flight. I dozed, feeling leaden and weary; vaguely, through the low scuttling clouds, I saw a snow-covered valley gliding past us, rigid with cold. I don't know for how long. Then we were driving toward a large village, perhaps a small town, carefully, and suddenly everything was illuminated by sunlight so powerful and blinding that the snowy planes began to melt. A white ground mist rose, spreading imperceptibly over the snowfields until, once again, the valley was hidden from my sight. It was like a bad dream, like an evil spell, as if I was not supposed to experience these mountains. My weariness came back. The gravel with which the road had been strewn clattered unpleasantly; driving over a bridge, we went into a slight skid; then we passed a military transport; the windshield became so dirty that the wipers could no longer clean it. H. sat sullenly next to me at the wheel, absorbed in his own thoughts, concentrating on the difficult road. I regretted having accepted his invitation, cursed the whiskey and my sleeping pills. But gradually, things improved. The valley became visible again, and more human, too. There were farms everywhere, and occasionally a small factory, everything spare and clean, the road free of snow and ice now, glistening with wetness, but safe enough for us to accelerate to a decent speed. The mountains no longer hemmed us in from all sides but had opened out, and then we stopped next to a gas station.

The house immediately struck me as peculiar, perhaps because it stood out from its neat and proper surroundings. It was a wretched-looking thing with streams of water flowing down its sides. Half of it was made of stone, the other half was a wooden shed whose front wall was covered with posters. Evidently this had been its use for a long time, for there were whole layers of posters pasted one over the other: Burrus Tobacco for Modern Pipes, Drink Canada Dry, Sport Mints, Vitamins, Lindt's Milk Chocolate, and so on. On the side wall, in giant letters: Pirelli Tires. The two gas pumps stood on an uneven, badly paved square in front of the house; everything made a run-down impression, despite the sun, which was now exuding a stinging heat that seemed almost malevolent.

"Let's get out," said the former chief of police, and I obeyed without understanding what he had in mind, but glad to step into the fresh air.

Next to the open door sat an old man on a stone bench. He was unshaven and unwashed, wore a pale smock that was smeared and stained, and dark, grease-spotted trousers that had once been part of a tuxedo. Old slippers on his feet. His eyes were staring, stupefied, and I could smell the liquor from afar. Absinthe. The pavement around the stone bench was littered with cigarette butts that were floating in puddles of melted snow.

"Hello," said the police chief, and he suddenly sounded embarrassed. "Full up, please. Super. And clean the windshields." Then he turned to me. "Let's go in."

Only now did I notice a tavern sign over the only visible window, a red metal disk. And over the door was the name of the place: Zur Rose. We stepped into a dirty corridor. The stench of beer and schnapps. The chief walked ahead of me. He opened a wooden door; evidently he had been here before. The barroom was dark and dingy, a couple of rough-hewn tables and benches, the walls papered with cutout pictures of movie stars; the Austrian radio was giving a market report for the Tyrol, and behind the counter, barely discernible, stood a haggard woman in a dressing gown, smoking a cigarette and washing glasses.

"Two coffees with cream," said the chief.

The woman went about preparing the coffee. From the adjoining room came a sloppy-looking waitress who looked about thirty years old to me.

"She's sixteen," the chief muttered.

The girl served us our coffees. She was wearing a black skirt and a white, half-open blouse, with nothing underneath; her skin was unwashed. She was blond, as the woman behind the counter must once have been, and her hair was uncombed.

"Thank you, Annemarie," the chief said, and laid the money on the table. The girl, too, did not reply, did not even thank him. We drank in silence. The coffee was awful. The chief lit himself a Bahianos. The Austrian radio was now discussing the water level and the girl shuffled off to the room next door, where we saw something whitish shimmering, probably an unmade bed.

"Let's go," said the chief.

Outside, after a glance at the pump, he paid the old man for filling the tank and cleaning the windshields.

"Next time," the chief said by way of farewell, and again I noticed his helpless air; but the old man still didn't reply; he was back on his bench, staring into space, stupefied, obliterated. When we had reached the Ope1 and turned around again, the old man was clenching his fists, shaking them, and whispering, pressing the words out in brief, forceful gasps, his face transfigured by an immense faith: "I'll wait, I'll wait, he'll come, he'll come."

Chapter Two

To be honest," Dr. H. began later as we were approaching the Kerenz Pass—the road was icy again, and beneath us lay Lake Walen, glittering, cold, forbidding; also, the leaden weariness from the Medomin had come back, the memory of the smoky taste of the whiskey, the feeling of gliding along in an endless, meaningless dream—"to be honest, I have never thought highly of detective novels and I rather regret that you, too, write them. It's a waste of time. Though what you said in your lecture yesterday was worth hearing; since the politicians have shown themselves to be so criminally inept-and it takes one to know one, I'm a member of Parliament, as I'm sure you're aware...." (I had no idea, I was listening to his voice as if from a great distance, barricaded behind my tiredness, but attentive, like an animal in its lair.) "... People hope the police at least will know how to put the world in order, which strikes me as the most miserable thing you could possibly hope for. But unfortunately, these mystery stories perpetrate a whole different sort of deception. I don't even mean the fact that your criminals are always brought to justice. It's a nice fairy tale and is probably morally necessary. It's one of those lies that preserve the state, like that pious homily 'crime doesn't pay'—when all that's required to test this particular piece of wisdom is to have a good look at human society; no, I'd let all that pass, for business reasons if nothing else, because every reader and every taxpayer has a right to his heroes and his happy end, and it's our job to deliver that—I mean ours as policemen, just as much as it's your job as writers. No, what really bothers me about your novels is the story line, the plot. There the lying just takes over, it's shameless. You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: here's the criminal, there's the victim, here's an accomplice, there's a beneficiary; and all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy. You can't come to grips with reality by logic alone. Granted, we of the police are forced to proceed logically, scientifically; but there is so much interference, so many factors mess up our clear schemes, that success in our business very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favor. Or against us. But in your novels, chance plays no part, and if something looks like chance, it's made out to be some kind of fate or providence; the truth gets thrown to the wolves, which in your case are the dramatic rules. Get rid of them, for God's sake. Real events can't be resolved like a mathematical formula, for the simple reason that we never know all the necessary factors, just a few, and usually a rather insignificant few. And chance—the incalculable, the incommensurable—plays too great a part. Our laws are based only on probability, on statistics, not on causality; they apply to the general rule, not the particular case. The individual can't be grasped by calculation. Our criminological methods are inadequate, and the more we refine them, the more inadequate they get. But you fellows in the writing game don't care about that. You don't try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a manageable world. That world may be perfect, but it's a lie. Forget about perfection if you want to make headway and get at the way things actually are, at reality, like a man; otherwise you'll be left fiddling around with useless stylistic exercises. But let's get to the point.

"I'm sure you were surprised by a few things this morning. First of all, by my own talk; a former chief of the Zurich cantonal police should express more moderate views. But I am old and I've stopped lying to myself. I know very well what a dubious bunch we all are, how little we can accomplish, how easily we make mistakes; but I also know that we have to act anyway, even at the risk of acting wrongly.

"Then you must also have wondered why I stopped at that miserable gas station, and I'll confess it to you right away: that pathetic drunken wreck who filled up our tank used to be my most capable man. God knows I knew something about my profession, but Matthäi was a genius, and this to a degree that puts all your paper detectives to shame.

"The story happened almost nine years ago," H. continued after passing a Shell oil truck. "Matthäi was one of my inspectors, or rather, one of my first lieutenants-we use military ranks in the cantonal police. He was a lawyer, like me, a Baseler who had taken his doctorate in Basel, and among certain groups that made his acquaintance 'professionally,' his nickname was 'Dead-end Matthäi.' After a while we called him that, too. He was a lonely man, always neatly dressed, impersonal, formal, aloof; he didn't smoke, didn't drink, but on the job he was tough as nails, downright ruthless, and as hated as he was successful. I was never able to figure him out. I think I was the only person he liked-because I have a soft spot for clearheaded people, even though his lack of humor often got on my nerves. He was extremely bright, but the all too solid structures in our country had made him emotionless. He was what you'd call an organization man, and he used the police apparatus like a slide rule. He wasn't married, he never spoke of his private life-probably he didn't have one. The only thing he thought about was his job. He was a top-notch detective, but he worked without passion. He was stubborn, tireless, but when you watched him in action, he appeared to be bored; until one day he got embroiled in a case that suddenly stirred him to passion.

"He was at the pinnacle of his career at the time. There had been some difficulties with him in the department. I was going to be retired, and my most likely successor was Matthäi. But there were obstacles to his appointment that couldn't be ignored. Not only that he didn't belong to any party, but the rank and file would have objected. The cantonal government, on the other hand, was hesitant to pass over such a capable man. So when the government of Jordan asked the federal government to send an expert to Amman to reorganize their police, it was like a godsend: Matthäi was recommended by Zurich and accepted by Berne and Amman. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. He, too, was pleased, and not just for professional reasons. He was about fifty then-a little desert sun would do him good, he figured; he looked forward to the trip, to the flight across the Alps and the Mediterranean; probably he imagined this would be his final farewell from us, for he hinted that afterward he would move to Denmark to live with a widowed sister there-and he was just clearing out his desk in the cantonal police headquarters on Kasernenstrasse when the call came."

Chapter Three

Matthäi had a hard time making sense of that jumbled report," the chief continued. "It was one of his old 'clients' calling from Mägendorf, a little hole in the wall near Zurich. The man was a peddler named von Gunten. Matthäi wasn't really in the mood to take up this case on his last afternoon on the job. He had already bought his plane ticket, he'd be leaving in three days. But I was away at a conference of police chiefs and wasn't expected back from Berne until evening. This case called for competent handling; inexperience could spoil everything. Matthäi called the police station in Mägendorf. It was near the end of April, buckets of rain splashing down outside, the föhn had blown into the city, but the nasty, malignant heat persisted, and people could hardly breathe.

"Officer Riesen picked up the phone.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE PLEDGE by Friedrich Dürrenmatt Copyright © 1986 by Diogenes Verlag AG, Zürich. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2001

    hard mistery novel

    A little child is found slaughtered in a Swiss canton. This crime has a sexual facet as another tree previous separated by several years. The inspector Mattei, the policeman in charge of the case is a very cool professional who has the fame of solve his cases as a scientist without any emotional implication but no doubt this time he falls deeply impressed and when he has to say the notice to the parents, the mother demands to him the promise to capture the murderer. But Mattei has just attained the age of retirement Swiss authorities have an employment for him as police adviser in Jordania and his flight is for the next day. He almost takes the airplane but amid this he looks many children going to schools and seems to develop an obsession to protect them so he rejects these work in Middle East and even his condition of official police inspector and begins to work as a particular in a gas service station because owing the localization of the murders he thinks the criminal lives not far. I think F. Durrenmatt is a pessimist writer although of high quality and this novel ins¿t for these readers that expects the usual full psysical action or a happy end but I think Mattei fulfils his pledge at a high and strange cost.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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