When a previously dispassionate detective – renowned and somewhat disliked for his cool head and professional detachment – becomes fixated by a case, his colleagues think he’s burned out, suffered a breakdown. They think he’s lost his mind. From his perspective the situation is completely reversed: the callous cut-throat murder of a young girl shocks him out of his shell and reconnects him to humanity. When no one else will break the news to the unsuspecting parents, Inspector Matthai shoulders the burden and makes the pledge of the title; a promise which will wreck his career, endanger innocent lives and trigger the death of a suspect in custody.
This is powerful material entirely in tune with the modern zeitgeist – made all the more remarkable by the fact it was written half a century ago. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s study of obsession was originally published in 1958 and is set in insular Switzerland. The writing is precise and concise; this is a slim book by modern standards but not a word is wasted. It’s short on hysterical sentimentality, long on literary skill. The author doesn’t take ten chapters of daily-life detail to vividly create the character of an intelligent, isolated man – it’s done with a few swift strokes and a couple of revealing scenes. A masterclass in the ‘show don’t tell’ style. The narration is less successful however (the story is told to a stranger by a retired police chief) and feels a little awkward compared to current writing styles. It’s about the only aspect of this tense thriller which detracts from the cat-and-mouse pursuit of a child killer.
Dürrenmatt also uses this novel to discuss the morality of crime fiction itself, and how the stories we adore being scared rarely represent true events. He wraps a cliffhanger mystery inside a social commentary; teasing the reader with the final reveal while wagging an admonishing finger at our enthusiasm for this type of fiction. It’s thought-provoking at every level if a tiny bit uncomfortable at times.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt is available as an ebook or paperback
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