And so to chapter 4 of Crime Fiction in German and Martin Rosenstock’s essay on the genesis of Swiss Crime fiction through Temme, Loosli, Glauser, Dürrenmatt to contemporary proponents of the form Hansjörg Schneider and Urs Schaub. (Authors in bold have been translated into English.)
When it came to my own reading for this chapter, I had to make a beeline, despite the horrendous book cover, for Dürrenmatt’s Inspector Balach’s Mysteries given the fulsome praise received from fellow #germanlitmonth bloggers Grant and Jacqui. However, going back through the #germanlitmonth annals, I note that Anthony was less keen.
Dürrenmatt’s Inspector Barlach is an old man approaching not only the end of his career, but also the end of his life. Suffering from stomach cancer, he is in need of an urgent operation to give him an extra twelve months. This infuses the two novellas with an existentiality and a philosophical leaning that are more important than the plots. What drives Barlach to continue despite his personal difficulties? A good, old-fashioned belief in the necessity to execute justice. What methods does he use? Good, old-fashioned gut instincts, which serve him well when his judgment is on top form. Conversely they put him in great peril when he makes questionable decisions.
A young promising police officer is murdered in the Judge and His Hangman. Barlach is assigned the case together with Tschanz. Barlach has a firm suspicion from the off, and Tschanz is offended that he will not share it.
If the person I suspect is, in fact the killer, you will find him in your own way – which, unlike mine, is impeccably scientific. And if I’m wrong, you will find the right man, and there will have been no need to know the name of the person I falsely suspected.
And so the game begins, will Tschanz vindicate Barlach’s hunch or will new-fangled scientific methods disprove it? It is, of course, not quite that simple because in the course of the investigation, paths cross with an old adversary of Barlach’s – Gastmann, who once murdered a man in front of Barlach’s eyes, but Barlach could never prove it. Knowledge is not enough to proesecute – nor is a hunch. Empirical evidence is needed and Tschanz goes about seeking it and finally providing it, though not quite in the manner he envisaged. And yes, Barlach’s hunch is vindicated.
My problem with this is that we don’t understand how that hunch was formed until the final denouement by which time it all feels a bit Holmesy or Poiroty i.e Barlach is a know-all and it all feels a bit too convenient.
And I have even more problems with Suspicion, the stronger of the two novellas. While recovering from his surgery, Barlach comes across a picture of a Nazi doctor operating, without anaesthia, on a prisoner at Stutthof concentration camp. Dr Nehle may still be practising at a private clinic as Dr Emmenberger. Barlach sets about gathering evidence to prove that the two men are one and the same, amd once he is reasonably certain, he arranges for himself to be transferred to Dr Emmenberger’s clinic.
Quite what he hopes to accomplish there is beyond me – particularly in his weakened bedridden state, and without the backing of the police force (he has been retired due to ill health.) But go he does and immediately falls into mortal peril. Emmenberger knows he’s coming and what for (though it’s not explained how), and has no intention of letting his captive leave the clinic alive. The second half of the novella is horrendously tense, due not only to Barlach’s impending death but to the intended method of dispatch. Barlach will suffer the same torture as Nehle’s concentration camp internees ….
At this point I feel Dürrenmat becomes a victim of his own success, having written Barlach into such a tight corner, the only way out is by divine intervention – or something pretty similar. I’m afraid my eyes rolled at the convenience and unreality of it.
It seems my mistake is to expect Dürrenmatt to stick to the narrow confines of his chosen genre. Sven Birkerts in the Chicago Press introduction states that Suspicion is a fairy tale that not even the dark-minded Brothers Grimm could have conjured on the page. I can follow that because even the best heroes need some kind of fairy godmother to help them overcome the odds. Martin Rosenstock also points out that these mysteries, written in the 1950s, are morality tales set against Swiss feelings of vulnerability to Nazi infiltration. The inspector’s world-weary decency casts out the corrupted members of society and re-establishes a precarious moral order. Seen in that light, I hope Dürrenmatt wasn’t saying that decency is living on borrowed time. Convenient intervention notwithstanding, by the end page Barlach has only twelve months to live.