The Inspector Barlach Mysteries:
The Judge and His Hangman + Suspicion

Friedrich Dürrenmatt

translated from the German by Joel Agee
The University of Chicago Press 2006 [1952]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
These two short novels, around a hundred pages each, feature Inspector Barlach of the Bern city police. They are not classical detective stories or police procedurals, however, but noir thrillers, with murky intrigue, surprising plot twists, striking characters, and philosophical elements.

Barlach has served in Constantinople and Weimar Germany, but he is a believer in old-fashioned detective work and mistrusts the new-fangled criminal science. He is an old man, near the end of his career and, it turns out, with a disease that leaves him only a year to live. With no family and few other ties, he is world-weary, reflective and disillusioned, but he is still prepared to stand up for simple human decencies and a pragmatic justice.

In The Judge and His Hangman one of Barlach's subordinates is found shot dead in his car on a lonely mountain road on the edge of the Jura. Barlach's new offsider, Tschanz, is quick off the mark, but Barlach comes under political pressure from his boss and refuses to let Tschanz question the well-connected chief suspect. All is not as it seems, however: there are reversals in our understanding of what is going on and events from Barlach's past surface. Dürrenmatt, who knew the area well himself, also conveys a strong feeling for the setting, for the mountain villages and the gorges and vineyards on the slopes above the Bielersee; I followed events using Google Maps.

In Suspicion the response of his own doctor to a magazine article leads Barlach to suspect that the chief of a leading Zurich clinic is a war criminal who carried out experimental operations on concentration camp inmates without anaesthetic. To uncover the truth, he checks himself into the clinic as a patient. Barlach spends the larger part of the novel too weak to leave his hospital bed, with much of the story told indirectly, through conversations with his doctor and a range of outré characters — a disfigured camp survivor turned vigilante, the browbeaten publisher of a fringe literary magazine, the suspect himself, and his employees — but Dürrenmatt maintains both an immediate narrative drive and a structural tension.

Reflecting their original newspaper serialisation (in 1951 and 1952), both novels are made up of short, relatively self-contained chapters, often quite different in mood and style and sometimes introducing abrupt plot turns. They range from sustained action sequences — when an intruder breaks into Barlach's house at night, for example — to more philosophical reflections. The latter involve a probing existentialism rather than anything ponderous and interweave with the plots, touching on law and morality, the nature of evil, and the uncertainty of knowledge.

Dürrenmatt's detective novels are regularly used as school texts and recommended to language learners. I read these two in German, as Der Richter und sein Henker and Der Verdacht, and agree with the recommendation for learners: the language is relatively simple, mostly straight narration and dialogue, and there's only a little bit of esoteric vocabulary and regional dialect. More importantly, the story provides enough engagement to motivate the slower and more laboursome reading of a learner — which may also be a consideration with some native-speaker students.

Note: the bibliographic information accompanying this review is for the 2006 translation published by Chicago University Press, which includes a six page forward. The edition I read was the paperback published by Diogenes in 1998.

October 2014

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%T The Inspector Barlach Mysteries
%S The Judge and His Hangman + Suspicion
%A Dürrenmatt, Friedrich
%M German
%F Agee, Joel
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 2006 [1952]
%G ISBN-13 9780226174440
%P 208pp