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The Pledge

The Pledge - Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Joel Agee You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: here’s the criminal, there’s the victim, here’s an accomplice, there’s a beneficiary; and all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate,the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. It drives me crazy. You can’t come to grips with reality by logic alone.So complains Dr. H., a Swiss police commissioner, to a mystery novelist and the narrator of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Pledge . Dr. H. then launches into the story of Matthei, a brilliant police detective who is undone by reality’s lack of logic.Matthei, who is scheduled to leave for Amman, Jordan, to close out his career in a diplomatic role, investigates the murder of a child in a small Swiss village on the eave of his departure. Matthei is a dogged investigator, a loner who belongs to no political party and has lived in a Zurich hotel room his entire career; the assignment to Jordan is a “godsend” for Dr. H., who knows that he has to pass Matthei over for a promotion because, though a brilliant detective, he is not the sort of person who can connect with his colleagues and the public.Matthei promises the child’s mother “on my eternal salvation” that he will bring the girl’s killer to justice. His dedication to that promise in the face of significant opposition from the police, who are sure they have already caught the killer, is his downfall. He refuses to go to Jordan until he makes good on his pledge, and he develops a questionable plan to reel in the murderer.WARNING: SPOILER THREAT FROM HERE!Matthei’s plan, inspired by a lesson in fishing from a group of boys, is to capture the killer by dangling bait in front of him. A predator, the boys explain, needs live bait, and so Matthei buys a roadside gas station and hires a former prostitute with a little girl who resembles the murdered child (and three other murdered girls) to run the cafe. And he waits, letting the girl roam in the woods near the gas station but not so far out of his sight that he won’t know if the killer approaches her the way he apparently approached his other victims.Ethically troubling though his plan is, it appears to work, when the girl Annemarie tells him about a “wizard” who visits with her in the woods; Gritli, the murdered girl, had a “giant” who gave her hedgehogs as gifts. Dr. H., who periodically checks in on Matthei, is enlisted to set up a trap for the “wizard” in a clearing where the girl plans to meet him again.And they wait. And wait. They watch the girl sitting on a rock in the clearing, singing to herself, and they wait. And the killer never comes After several days, Dr. H. and the police return to Zurich; but Matthei continues to wait.What Matthei cannot know, and what Dr. H. learns months later through a deathbed confession, is that the killer died in a car accident the day the stake-out began. The killer’s wife knew all along about Gitli and the other girls, and knew that he was on his way to another victim, but she never told anyone; she was afraid that her sister would use the information to mock her. Matthei was right–he had trapped the killer–but the randomness of reality undid his plot.When I saw the movie based on “The Pledge” a few years ago, directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson, I was intrigued by the way it undermined the mystery genre by inserting a random event–a car accident that kills the murderer on his way to his meeting with justice–at the most important juncture. I was finally able to track down the novel, and though I already knew the twist in the tale I was excited to read it.Alas, I was also a bit disappointed. It may be a result of the translation from Swiss German, or it may be the time in which the novel was written (published in 1958), but it felt stilted and clunky. The framing device–having the story told entirely by Dr. H., even recounting episodes he could not have witnessed–stretched credulity. For a noir-era crime novel that plays with the conventions, it’s good, but not great. This is one of the few times that I would actually say that the movie was better–Jack Nicholson was perfect as the brooding, slightly-mad investigator, and the location in the Pacific Northwest lends an ominous, gritty feel to the film. The movie is also a bit more reticent about disclosing the killer’s identity than the book, making the effect Durrenmatt was after even stronger.