The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (tr. Joel Agee)

Last November, off the back of this excellent review by Grant at 1streading, I bought a copy of The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by the Swiss author and playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. My University of Chicago Press edition contains two novellas: The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and its sequel, Suspicion (1951), both of which feature Inspector Barlach of the Bern police. It proved to be a great choice for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, an event which is running throughout November. These stories offer so much more than the intrigue of traditional mysteries – they raise complex moral and philosophical questions to which there are no easy answers.

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Hangman opens with a death. One of Barlach’s subordinates, the bright and promising Lieutenant Schmied, is found shot dead in his car near the woods in the Jura countryside. Naturally, Barlach takes up the case even though he is in the twilight of his career. (Through the course of the novella we learn that Barlach is suffering from stomach cancer – surgery will prolong his life by one year but only if his doctor can operate fairly swiftly.) The killer and motive for Schmied’s death seem unclear, but nevertheless, Barlach has a hunch. He is an old-school detective, one who relies on human nature and intuition as opposed to the modern scientific criminology techniques favoured by his superior, Dr Lutz. Here’s Barlach as he discusses the case with his assistant, the methodical and eager officer Tschanz:

“You see,” Barlach answered slowly, deliberating each word as carefully as Tschanz did, “my suspicion is not a scientific criminological suspicion. I have no solid reasons to justify it. You have seen how little I know. All I have is an idea as to who the murderer might be; but the person I have in mind has yet to deliver the proof of his guilt.” (pg. 14)

As the pair commence their investigations, the trail seems to point to the shady but influential Herr Gastmann, an operator with links to local industrialists and foreign diplomats. When Barlach meets Gastmann, it becomes clear that the two men have quite a history. Some forty years ago, they spent a night drinking together in Turkey, during which they debated the psychology of human nature. In particular, the discussion centred on our behaviour and its impact on the ability to detect and solve crimes:

Your thesis was that human imperfection—the fact that we can never predict with certainty how others will act, and that furthermore we have no way of calculating the ways chance interferes in our plans—guarantees that most crimes will perforce be detected. To commit a crime, you said, is an act of stupidity, because you can’t operate with people as if they were chessmen. Against this I contended, more for the sake of argument than out of conviction, that it’s precisely this incalculable, chaotic element in human relations that makes it possible to commit crimes that cannot be detected, and that for this reason the majority of crimes are not only not punished, but are simply not known, because, in effect, they are perfectly hidden. (pgs. 50-51)

As a consequence, the pair ended up making a bet: Gastmann declared that he would commit a crime in Barlach’s presence without the young police specialist being able to prove that he did it. Three days later, Gastmann carried out his promise – Barlach had him arrested but was unable to prove his opponent’s guilt. And so the crimes continued with Gastmann remaining one step ahead of his pursuer on each occasion, the violations becoming bolder and more daring over time.

This is a very clever mystery, strong on mood and atmosphere with scenes of palpable tension, particularly in the closing stages. Without wishing to reveal too much about the plot, the novella’s denouement will prompt the reader to reflect on the moral issues at play. When it comes to crime and punishment, can the end ever justify the means?

Suspicion opens with Barlach recovering in hospital following his operation for stomach cancer. When he shows his surgeon, Dr Samuel Hungertobel, a photograph from Life magazine, the man turns pale. The picture shows a certain Dr Nehle operating on a prisoner without anaesthesia at the Stutthof concentration camp during WW2. Barlach picks up on his doctor’s reaction, and when he questions him, Hungertobel admits that he thought he had recognised the face of an old friend from his student days, a certain Dr Emmenberger. In spite of the resemblance between the two men, Hungertobel realises he must have been mistaken – Emmenberger was in Chile during the war. Barlach, however, is deeply suspicious:

You’re right Samuel, suspicion is a terrible thing, it comes from the devil. There’s nothing like suspicion to bring out the worst in people. I know that very well, and I’ve often cursed my profession for it. People should stay away from suspicion. But now we’ve got it, and you gave it to me. (pg. 102)

Despite his retirement from the Bern police force, Barlach is itching for one more adventure. As he recovers in hospital, he begins to investigate Nehle and Emmenberger, relying on the help of a variety of contacts in the process. When Barlach discovers a report stating that Nehle took his own life in Hamburg in 1945, Hungertobel is convinced this puts an end to any doubts. Barlach, on the other hand, keeps digging. There remains the possibility that Emmenberger and Nehle exchanged identities at some point. If this were true, the concentration camp doctor might still be alive, posing as Emmenberger and running an exclusive treatment facility near Zürich. Consequently, Barlach persuades Hungertobel to have him transferred to Emmenberger’s clinic where he hopes to uncover the truth.

Suspicion is a much darker, more unnerving story than its predecessor, especially in the second half of the novella as Barlach places his own life in mortal danger. As a consequence, the scenes in the clinic are truly chilling. The interplay between the former Inspector and Emmenberger begins as a battle of wits and becomes increasingly terrifying with each development. As Emmenberger says to Barlach:

“…We are both scientists with opposing aims, chess players sitting in front of one board. You have made your move, now it’s my turn. But there’s one peculiar thing about our game: One of us will lose or else we both will. You have already lost your game. Now I’m curious to find out whether I will have to lose mine as well.” (pg. 192)

Once again, this story touches on a range of existential issues, in particular, the nature of hope, faith and justice. There is a clear parallel between the cancer from which Barlach is suffering and his desire to fight evil, a force with the power to destroy humanity if it remains unchecked.

Dürrenmatt has been compared to Simenon, and I can see why. These are excellent, thought-provoking stories, beautifully written, too. I’ll finish with a short passage on the Jura countryside, which I hope will give you a feel for the author’s style. It’s clear-cut and wonderfully atmospheric — perfect for a cold, dark winter’s night.

They left the vineyards behind and were soon in the forest. The fir trees advanced toward them, endless columns in the light. The street was narrow and in need of repair. Every once in a while a branch slapped against the windows. To their right, the cliffs dropped off precipitously. Tschanz drove so slowly that they could hear the sound of rushing water far below. (pg 19)

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MarinaSofia has reviewed the first novella for Crime Fiction Lover. Her review of Suspicion is here.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries are published by The University of Chicago Press. Source: personal copy. Book 15/20, #TBR20 round 2.

51 thoughts on “The Inspector Barlach Mysteries by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (tr. Joel Agee)

  1. hastanton

    I love these stories by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and first encountered them when doing German A Level a ‘few’ years ago . My very favourite though is The Promise …..a policeman’s obsessive search for a child killer . Sean Penn made it into a film recentlyish but despite Robin Williams it list all the pier of the original.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, on the strength of these two novellas I’d be up for reading another Dürrenmatt in the future! I’m struggling to find a reference to The Promise, but ‘Das Versprechen: Requiem auf den Kriminalroman’ has been translated and released as ‘The Pledge’. I think that might be the one as it was adapted for the screen by Sean Penn. Thanks for the recommendation – it’s going on my wishlist.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          No worries – thanks for the suggestion! I think I’ve seen the film, but it was so long ago that virtually all the details have slipped from my mind. That’s no bad thing if I’ve got the book to come.

          Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    Ha, I was just starting to write my review of Suspicion this morning, but you got there ahead of me! They’re very rich and thought-provoking books, aren’t they? I’m always surprised that the author himself didn’t think much of them, mere potboilers. I did detect the playwright in the dialogues in the second book though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Funnily enough, I read these novellas back in September, but it’s taking me about four or five weeks to get around to writing reviews at the moment! I really must do something about this backlog as it’s starting to get a little silly.

      Yes, they’re very thought-provoking stories – all the more so for Dürrenmatt’s focus on the psychology of these characters. I’ll be very interested to see your review of Suspicion. I think it’s somewhat different to The Judge and his Hangman – much darker and more terrifying.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion) | findingtimetowrite

  4. Tony

    In many ways, the third book is the best one, a very bleak story without the deus ex machina ending of the first two ;)

    Reply
  5. Caroline

    I’m glad you liked these. I think I should re-read these although I think it’s saying a lot that I still remember most of them although we read them in school. The tyle is quite dry which serves them well. Not fluff.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really liked these novellas, especially the first one. Your comments speak volumes for the staying power of these stories. I read them back at the beginning of September, and they’ve held up well in my memory even though I’ve read several other books since then. Yes, the style works very well here. I especially liked Dürrenmatt’s descriptions of the Jura countryside in Hangman – spare but very effective.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    How fascinating! I read The Judge and his Hangman in a battered old Penguin some years back, but had no idea there was a follow up! I’ll definitely look out for this.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I don’t know if Suspicion is available to buy on its own, but I like the fact that the Chicago Press edition includes the two novellas. It’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for it in the secondhand bookshops as you might be able to nab a bargain. I wondered if there might be some parallels between Suspicion and that Leo Perutz novel you read recently, Master of the Day of Judgement. It’s another mind-bender that draws on the horror genre to some extent. Grant might be able to give a view as he’s read both of these books.

      Reply
  7. Brian Joseph

    Existentialist issues contained within mystery books sound like a great combination to me. The time period that these were written in were such a ripe period for such thoughts.

    The subject matter of Suspicion sounds very dark and unnerving.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it adds another dimension to these stories. Suspicion, in particular, is quite difficult to categorise as the initial set-up suggests it’s heading in the direction of fairly traditional detective fiction, but then the second section takes a slightly different turn. It’s pretty unnerving in the end. There’s something timeless about the first story, but the period is very significant in the case of Suspicion – I can’t quite imagine it being set much later than the 1950s.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m probably not best placed to answer that as I’ve only read these two. For what it’s worth, I think you’d enjoy them – Dürrenmatt wrote them at an early stage in his career so if nothing else you’d be starting near the beginning. Caroline might be able to give you a better steer if you need any more info.

      Reply
  8. realthog

    I’m so glad you enjoyed these, as I’ve been singing their praises for a while. The Pledge, mentioned above, is excellent too — in fact, it was as a result of reading The Pledge that I made a point of tracking down the same Chicago Press edition of these two that you read.

    The Judge and his Hangman, by the way, has been filmed as End of the Game (1975).

    I first read The Pledge through coming across reference to it while researching my film noir book. Durrenmatt wrote the story for and co-scripted a movie called Es Geschah am Hellichten Tag (1958; vt It Happened in Broad Daylight). This was remade a couple of times, including as The Cold Light of Day (1996), with Richard Grant. Durrenmatt was very dissatisfied with what the producers of the original movie did to his work (I assume it was one of those instances where “co-scripted” means he wrote a script that was later adulterated by Other Hands), so he wrote The Pledge as a riposte, telling the story he thought the movie should have told.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah – I hadn’t realised you were a fan of Dürrenmatt, too! Another recommendation for The Pledge – that’s good to hear as it’s firmly on my wishlist. I don’t suppose you’ve reviewed it by any chance? (By the way, I love the cover of the Chicago Press edition of that book – it looks so dark and brooding and atmospheric.)

      Fascinating background about Dürrenmatt’s response to the original movie Es Geschah am Hellichten Tag. Good for him for taking a stand and writing the ‘true’ version of the story. I have seen Sean Penn’s version of The Pledge, but it was so long ago that I can barely remember the details now. Mind you that’s no bad thing as it means I can approach the book without the images from the film running through my head!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Thanks for the links, John. 5 Stars plus an excellent commentary on The Pledge – I’m sold! Very interesting to read about the novel’s ending compared to the denouement in the original film. I can understand why Dürrenmatt decided a rewrite was in order.

          I enjoyed your review of The Barlach Mysteries, too. That’s a great point about Dürrenmatt’s skill with the volte-face manoeuvre. Just when you think you know where these stories might be heading, he switches the emphasis…

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you would enjoy these stories, Guy. There is a touch of the Inspector Maigret about Dürrenmatt’s Barlach, but these stories are darker, more psychological in nature than Simenon’s mysteries. Perhaps they fall somewhere between Simenon’s Maigret stories and his romans durs.

      As far as I can tell, The Judge and the Hangman and Suspicion are the first two in this series. (In fact, they might be the only two as I’m not sure if Barlach ever made an appearance in any of Dürrenmatt’s other crime novels.) He wrote three early works before Hangman, but they appear to be plays…so I think you’d be getting in on the ground floor here.

      Reply
          1. MarinaSofia

            This is what the his estate/museum/documentation in Neuchatel has to say about his novels post the two you describe above:
            Film projects lie at the root of three further books in this vein: The Pledge (1958, subtitled “Requiem for the Detective Novel”); The Execution of Justice (begun in 1959/60 and completed in 1985); and The Assignment (1986). In all three, the author’s characteristic intermingling of morality and logic is carried out to the point of absurdity. By the same token, his novels always provide philosophical outlooks on the relationship between law and morality, the origin of evil and the possibility of knowledge.
            The last of this genre of novels, Valley of Confusion (1989), skillfully and confusingly interweaves theological, cosmological and mythical motifs into a satirical gangster tale located in an Alpine spa town.

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Oh, that’s great – thanks, Marina. “By the same token, his novels always provide philosophical outlooks on the relationship between law and morality, the origin of evil and the possibility of knowledge.” One could say the same about the Barlach stories as well.

              The Pledge sounds excellent, so I’ve added it to my wishlist. One for next year’s German Lit Month, perhaps.

              Reply
  9. Mytwostotinki

    Great review of these two classics which we read at school. Beside The Pledge he wrote another crime novel Justiz (The Execution of Justice). Friedrich Glauser’s Wachtmeister Studer novels had for sure a great influence on The Inspector Barlach Mysteries.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. It’s interesting to hear that the Barlach novels were on the school curriculum. They’re certainly very thought-provoking. The first novel, in particular, raises quite a significant moral dilemma, and I can imagine it giving rise to a good debate.

      Thanks for the information on The Extension of Justice and Friedrich Glauser’s novels. Glauser is a completely new name to me, so I shall take a look!

      Reply
  10. Scott W

    These certainly don’t seem like the typical plot lines one finds in most mysteries. The cat and mouse aspect of the first one appeals to me. I’m also intrigued by your European commenters noting that these novels are taught in schools.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I loved The Judge and his Hangman! Suspicion is very good as well, if rather unnerving. I wonder if the reason these books are studied in German schools stems from the moral and ethical questions they raise. There’s certainly a debate to be had here about the nature of crime and punishment. Both of these stories touch on this issue but from slightly different angles.

      Reply
  11. BookerTalk

    I read very little crime/ detective fiction so when I do I want it to be a cut above the norm. This collection certainly seems to offer so ething different. That cover is really scary though

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I must say I was pretty impressed by these stories. They raise some interesting questions concerning the ethics of retribution. I guess that’s why Dürrenmatt has been included in the school curriculum in certain countries.

      The cover is pretty gruesome, isn’t It? I’m hoping it won’t deter too many people from reading the book. The Judge and his Hangman features a scene with a rather vicious guard dog, so I think that’s the reference point for the cover image.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hurrah! I think you’d like Dürrenmatt, Emma. I’m not sure how well known he is in France, but his stories are well worth seeking out. There’s plenty to get your teeth into here.

      Reply
  12. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds very good, and I’m sure I’d like it. Atmospheric, a philosophical element, all good stuff.

    But, and it’s not a small but, I don’t really want to commit to another series when I have some part read and some owned but not read. Time…

    Reply
    1. realthog

      But, and it’s not a small but, I don’t really want to commit to another series when I have some part read and some owned but not read. Time…

      The entire series is contained within a ~200-page book.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I can understand your reluctance to sign up to another series. I’m wary of doing that myself. If it helps, I think these two novellas might be the only two stories featuring Inspector Barlach. Durrenmatt penned a few other crime novels later in his career, but they appear to be standalone works. My edition of Hangman + Suspicion comes in at around 200 pages for the pair.

      Reply
  13. litlove

    I haven’t heard the name Durrenmatt since my A levels! And back then we were looking at his plays and I don’t recall them being quite as interesting as these stories sound. What an excellent choice for German lit month! Wonderful reviews as always, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! How interesting to hear that you studied Dürrenmatt’s work as well. I get the feeling he was quite influential as a dramatist, someone who pushed the boundaries of theatre in his day.

      I thought these stories were excellent, full of ideas and questions. It sounds as though his plays touch on quite a wide range of issues too.

      Reply
  14. 1streading

    These were a great find when I read them last year and I’m so glad you enjoyed them. (It’s also been really interesting reading through all the comments above). I’ve just read The Assignment so I hope to review that soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks for introducing me to the delights of Dürrenmatt’s fiction, Grant – these are just the sort of intelligent crime novels I enjoy! Yes, it’s been fascinating to see the range of comments on this author and the breadth of his work. I’m looking forward to your review of The Assignment…another addition to the wishlist, no doubt. :)

      Reply
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