The Pledge, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1958)
In 1958, portly, cigar-puffing Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt penned a screenplay about a detective’s fanatical pursuit of a child killer. Disliking the ambiguous ending, the producers asked him to rewrite it. He did so and the film was released under the title “It Happened in Broad Daylight”. Irritated, Dürrenmatt took his revenge by publishing his own version of the story, with a striking and double-edged ending, as a novella under the title “The Pledge”. This book, written shortly after the last novel of Raymond Chandler, doyen of detective fiction, was published, is a wonderful subversion of the genre, with important religious themes, that raises the question: “Why do we really want happy endings?”
It is the story of Matthaï, an inspector of police in a quiet Swiss canton, whose career and life are transformed by the brutal murder of a young girl, Gritli Moser. After her mutilated body is discovered outside a small village suspicion quickly falls on a local peddler who was seen in the area. On visiting Gritli’s parents, Matthaï promises that he will find the killer “on his eternal salvation” — the eponymous pledge. But despite overwhelming evidence and the peddler’s confession, Matthaï is convinced by Gritli’s childish drawing of a ‘hedgehog giant’ that the true killer has escaped. When the peddler kills himself, Matthaï abandons his police career and hatches a diabolical plot: working at a petrol station, he will use an innocent girl, Annemarie, as bait to lure the killer into revealing himself.
Adapted from a film script, much of the book consists of dialogue separated into short chapters, reminiscent of a police report. The prose is like cut glass: simple, precise, and tightly structured, but with occasional beautiful flashes such as “The storm was still lashing the treetops and shaking loose large silver drops that glittered like diamonds.” This style, which some might find too basic, has the effect of making the reader feel immersed in a documentary, giving extra force to the narrative, which pulls the reader along, like driftwood caught in the tide.
However this is no simple detective story. Durrenmatt has also created a powerful allegory and critique of the role of religious faith in our lives. “Dead End Matthaï”, the “impersonal, formal, aloof” inspector is transformed by his new ‘faith’ into an absinthe-drinking, cheroot-smoking, fanatic. The sheer implausibility of the ‘hedgehog giant’ is what makes him certain of his existence: as Tertullian said of Christian faith “It is certain because it is impossible.” But Matthaï’s demand for a happy ending drives him to immorality and self-destruction. In one scene, Matthaï’s frustration leads him to beat Annemarie because the killer has failed to materialise. Intending to prevent child abuse, he ends up committing it himself. The remarkable double-edged ending — which the reader can discover for themselves — manages to shock, satisfy and unsettle in equal measure.
When The Pledge was first published it had the subtitle “Requiem for the Detective Novel” — a dig at the film producers of “It Happened in Broad Daylight”, but also an apparently triumphant celebration of the death of a hated genre. In fact, as requiems are also a celebration of ascension to Heaven, The Pledge is not just the death knell of conventional detective fiction, but its glorious resurrection.