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