29 & 30 – ‘Der Richter Und Sein Henker’ & ‘Der Verdacht’ by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

A long, long time ago, back when I was doing my A-Levels, I was first introduced to the work of the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in the form of his classic detective novel, ‘Der Richter und Sein Henker’. The title can be translated as the judge and his executioner (literally, hangman) and the book tells the story of a policeman from Bern, Kommisär Bärlach, who uses events to his advantage to finally bring a career criminal to justice. A couple of years later, while I was what is laughingly described as ‘studying’ at university, I took a unit on Dürrenmatt and read the sequel to the original tale, ‘Der Verdacht’ (‘The Suspicion), where the now-retired Bärlach takes on another evil-doer, an action which almost costs him what is left of his life.

I read a few detective novels when I was a teenager (and I still like a bit of Inspector Morse!), but, on the whole, I find them a little simplistic, even when the plot is well thought out. The difference with these two stories is the way the solving of the suspected crime becomes unimportant compared to the sub-plots and interplay between the characters. Dürrenmatt uses his works to discuss the role of good and bad in the world and how far good men can, and should, go to prevent evil from gaining the upper hand.

The two titles are chosen quite deliberately; throughout the two books there are several judges and executioners, none of them appointed by the law of the land. In ‘Der Richter und Sein Henker’, Bärlach and his subordinate, Tschanz, are assigned to solve the murder of another policeman, Schmied (who was secretly working for Bärlach to gather evidence against Gastmann, a career criminal who continually crossed paths with the old inspector). Again and again, the investigation comes across obstacles preventing access to the suspected perpetrator until Tschanz finally confronts, and kills, Gastmann and his sidekicks. Only then do we find out that Tschanz was Schmied’s real killer and that Bärlach used this knowledge to increase the pressure on Tschanz to push the blame onto Gastmann. The old inspector has judged the inveterate criminal and sent his executioner to carry out the sentence.

In ‘Der Verdacht’, however, a chance sighting of a picture of a Nazi war criminal operating without anaesthetic in a concentration camp leads Bärlach to investigate a high-class Swiss surgeon. Only too late he discovers that his suspicion is actually the truth; worse, the surgeon knows that Bärlach is onto him and is not inclined to allow the frail old man out of his hospital alive…

Both criminals, Gastmann and the surgeon, Emmenberger, are portrayed as rich, successful, intelligent men who commit crimes for the sake of it. Gastmann is just as capable of murder as he is of paying the taxes of an entire town. Emmenberger, who tortured hundreds of prisoners in concentration camps by operating without anaesthetic, but with the consent of his victims, rejoices in his freedom from the normal rules of society, believing himself to be living the only kind of life possible, one where you are free to make whatever decisions you want (even if that involves torturing and killing people).

Both behave with full knowledge of what the results may be, and, in his own way, so does Bärlach. Dürrenmatt insists on the importance of taking responsibility for your actions, even if they do not always turn out as planned. In the first book, the old inspector, while seeming to be unable to match Gastmann in their battle of wits, is eventually the victor, able to use events to his advantage and ‘convict’ the criminal for a crime he did not commit. However, in the sequel, the tables are turned, and it is Bärlach who is out-thought and out-manoeuvered. As a result, he causes the death of an innocent man who was enlisted to help him put pressure on Emmenberger. This is something the policeman must take full responsibility for.

From the discussion of the events in ‘Der Verdacht’, it is probably clear that these events take place shortly after the end of the Second World War, and the role of Switzerland itself in this period is implicitly handled, especially in the second novel. While we condemn the criminal behaviour of the two villains and are appalled at the horrors of the concentration camps, Bärlach questions the self-rightiousness of the Swiss, stressing that they were “verschont, nicht versucht” (spared, not tempted). Gastmann and Emmenberger were tempted by life unrestricted by society and became criminals. In the same way, Tschanz, passed over again and again for promotion, jealous of the better-educated Schmied and of his beautiful partner (and car!), is tempted to get rid of his superior in order to slip into his role. Lead us, indeed, not into temptation…

However evil or good, cunning or impulsive, plans are never perfect in this world; luck can always prevent your intentions from being realised. The publication of Emmenberger’s photograph in a magazine, Schmied’s untimely death, Tschanz… Nothing is certain, and we must always rely on a little luck to cover up our crimes, or uncover those of others. It is no coincidence that the key character in the first book is called Tschanz (pronunciation? Chance.). A coincidence brought Gastmann and Bärlach together near the start of their lives, and luck helped the criminal commit a murder in front of the policeman’s eyes without his being able to act. In the end, it is fortune that helps to complete the circle.

Quite a lot for around 250 pages, but then, Dürrenmatt is a very special writer. The difference between these dectective stories with a moral and the usual plot-driven pulp fiction is that knowing the outcome doesn’t lessen the effect of the novel. Even (almost) twenty years on, the books still have the same pull, and I know I’ll read them again and again. And that is the hallmark of good writing.

2 thoughts on “29 & 30 – ‘Der Richter Und Sein Henker’ & ‘Der Verdacht’ by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

  1. Nice writeup. My MA thesis in translation was a comparison of two translations of Der Richter and I ended up touching on the Swiss provincial attitudes of the day. Appreciate your take.


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