The Judge and the Hangman by Friedrich Dürrenmatt


Do we all go through a detective fiction phase, a bit like that Stephen King phase? There was a time when I serially consumed the output of writers like Ed McBain, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. Good and evil were neatly polarised, the bad guys were unconditionally evil, the good guys were flawed but uncontaminated.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman must surely be the textbook example of detective fiction. The hero, terminally ill Barlach is endowed with flawless logic though disorganised and lazy. His nemesis Gastman is evil personified. The two protagonists have battled each other for forty years since making a youthful wager:

And as we kept arguing, seduced by those infernal fires the Jew kept pouring into our glasses, and even more by our own exuberant youth, we ended up making a bet, and it happened just as the moon was sinking behind Asia Minor, a wager which we defiantly pinned to the sky, very much like the kind of horrible joke that offends against everything sacred and yet holds out such a devilish appeal, such a wicked temptation of the spirit but the spirit, that we cannot suppress it.

Gastman refrains from the stock manic mwahahaha but you can feel the strain of his suppression. Whether the idle flow of cliché is the fault of Dürrenmatt or his translator, it was a struggle to proceed, at one point our hero holds his head in his hands moaning “What is man!”

From time to time it is useful to remind myself why crime fiction makes be bilious, the relentless path to the obvious. In this case I had nailed the murderer fifty pages before his denouement.

I turned to a work of crime fiction as part of German Literature Month co-hosted by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. I am not inclined to read another Dürrenmatt.

Published by

Anthony

Time's Flow Stemmed is a notebook of my wild readings.

15 thoughts on “The Judge and the Hangman by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

  1. i am ever so sorry you had a bad experience with d. normally, actually, his stuff is quite readable. he’s got something to say, sometimes.

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  2. I haven’t read this Durrenmatt, but don’t give up on him so quickly! His play The Visit is an excellent dark satire, as is another play, The Physicists. I’ve been meaning to read The Pledge (not a play, one of his novels) because the film made out of it (which i didn’t realize was based on his novel) is simply excellent.

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  3. //Do we all go through a detective fiction phase, a bit like that Stephen King phase?//
    I seem to dip into this genre once a year. Maybe my latent homicidal tendencies tend to shoot up during that period :). I generally get into Scandinavian crime fiction and tartan noir (Scottish). I like the fact that
    the who/how part of the crime is not as important in these novels as the why and most importantly the ramifications of the crime on everyone, the investigators, the family affected by the crime and finally the perpetrator himself.

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      1. Yes, Ian Rankin and ValMcdermid are the high priests of that genre. Stuart MacBride is slightly different in that he uses a lot of black/macabre humor in his works.

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  4. I’m sorry to hear that didn’t work for you. At school we were taught Dürrenmatt. We did read Der Richter und sein Henker but it wasn’t presented as a crime novel but as a piece of fiction analyzing morality. When I recently saw that in England he is read like a “proper” crime writer I found that suprising. Sure, there is crime, there is also crime in Dostojewsky (not that Dürrenammat is in the same league) still hardly anyone would call him a crime writer. Dürrennmat’s prose is very dry, understated and not plot-driven.
    In any case, his plays are very good.

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    1. Caroline, I can see the morality tale, but in this case the story is plot-driven, (to an extent) and reads like the now common cynical detective fiction (Dürrenammat was way ahead of his time in this regard). I wonder how much is lost in translation though as I could not call the prose in The Judge and His Hangman dry or understated.

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  5. i wouldn’t go so far and say a cross between borges and hegel, but yes, i can see how someone can get this association. maybe throw in some calvino too for good measure, yet calvino not in the funny but instead the laconic, uncalculating way. for me his prose worked much better for me. something called labyrinthe in german. no idea whether it’s translated. i second the others who say his style is restrained and unfussy.

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  6. I think it may be the translation because this is a wonderful book in German. However, the sequel, ‘Der Verdacht’ (‘The Suspicion’) and another, unrelated, detective story, ‘Das Versprechen’ (‘The Promise’ or ‘The Pledge’), are probably much more literary, as the focus is less on resolving the mystery than on the effect things have on the people trying to solve it. Definitely worth a try 🙂

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    1. Too many good readers are telling me I am mistaken, so I am willing to assume I am in error about Dürrenmatt. The edition I have includes, ‘The Suspicion’ so I shall give that a try. Thanks for dropping by, Tony.

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