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.