It is my personal belief that a truly great detective novel always opens with the discovery of a body. Friedrich Durrenmatt’s novella The Judge and the Hangman does just that. The body of a police inspector has been found in a car parked on a lonely road. The village police man who found it, drove the car into down, the body still in the passenger seat, and filed his report. Inspector Barlach, at the end of his career and at the end of his life, he is suffering from a terminal illness, soon arrives and begins his investigation.
There are essentially two reason to read detective novels: the complexities of the plot, and the character of the detective. Some may argue that the writing style is a third reason, but I think this is so closely tied to the character of the detective that the two can’t be wholly separated, they are one in the same. Soon after we meet Inspector Barlach he begins his investigation, and I suspect whether or not you love him as much as I did depends on how you react to this scene.
“Where was the car, Clenin?” (Barlach asked.)
“Here,” the policeman replied, pointing at the pavement, “almost in the middle of the road, ” and since Barlach was hardly paying any attention, “Maybe it would have been better if I had left the car here with the body inside.”
“Why?” Barlach asked, looking up at the cliffs of the Jura mountains. “The dead should be removed as quickly as possible, there’s no reason why they should stick around. You were right to drive Schmied back to Biel.”
Barlach stepped to the edge of the road and looked down over Twann. There was nothing but vineyards between him and the old village. The sun had already set. The road curved like a snake between the houses, and a long freight train stood waiting in the station.
“Didn’t anyone hear anything down there, Clenin?” he asked. “The village is nearby. You would hear a shot.”
“No one heard anything except the sound of the motor running all night, and no one thought that meant anything bad had happened.”
“Of course not, why would they.” He looked at the vineyards again. “How is the wine this year, Clenin?”
“Good. We could try some.”
“Yes, I would very much like a glass of new wine.”
And he struck against something hard with his right foot. He bent down and picked up a small, longish piece of metal flattened in the front, and held it between his thin fingers. Clenin and Blatter leaned in to look at it more closely.
“A bullet,” Blatter said. “From a pistol.”
“You’ve done it again, Inspector!” Clenin said admiringly.
“Just a coincidence,” Barlach said, and they walked down the road toward Twann.
Inspector Barlach, my new favorite detective. Everything he says in this scene ought to drip with sarcasm, and may do so in his mind, but Inspector Barlach plays it with a straight face, never letting on that the local policeman is a near complete idiot. And, the writing style has forced me to read every bit of that into the scene. Mr. Durrenmatt never describes Barlach’s tone of voice, nor lets us in on exactly what he is thinking. We know detectives like Inspector Barlach and can fill in these details for ourselves.
The plot of The Judge and His Hangman is a masterwork. We soon discover that the main suspect in the policeman’s murder is a lifelong enemy of Inspector Barlach, someone the detective was unable to convict of a murder he actually saw him commit for lack of evidence. Barlach engages his old nemesis in a battle of wits that culminates in a double plot twist ending that leaves the reader satisfied and then leaves the reader satisfied again. So if you read detective novels for the plots, The Judge and His Hangman will not disappoint.
The Inspector Barlach Mysteries are available in translation from the German by Joel Agee.
I think this review is terrible. I’ve been moving the reviews I wrote for my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., since starting this new blog last fall. For the most part, I’ve been pleased to read my old reviews. This one, though, is pretty dreadful. But the book was terrific, really. The worst thing about it was that it’s terminally ill detective didn’t live long enough to be featured in much of an on-going series. I would have loved more about Inspector Barlach.