When a young girl is found murdered near a small village in Switzerland, a travelling salesman is quickly accused of the crime, and the case is closed. Only one detective is convinced that the real perpetrator is still at large, and that he will strike again.
The book is based on Dürrenmatt’s own screenplay for the 1958 film It Happened in Broad Daylight, which had a pedagogic purpose in raising awareness of the threat of crimes against children. Dürrenmatt was not entirely satisfied with the film and especially the ending, and hence turned the screenplay into a book that had no place for pedagogic measures, but rather was interested in deconstructing the classic detective novel. The book was then adapted to film several times, most notably in 2001 as The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson.
The subtitle of the original edition was Requiem for the Detective Novel, which was for some reason not used anymore for later editions, but described Dürrenmatt’s intent clearly. He wanted to write a critique of some of the conventions in crime fiction that he considered to be ludicrous, especially that crimes are always solved, and that the detective simply has to look for clues and put them together, and then the identity of the perpetrator neatly and inevitably reveals itself like the result of a mathematical equation. In reality, no case can ever be solved as easily as that because clues may not be found, a murderer may be too clever, or random events may hinder the investigation. Nowadays many mystery novels exist that don’t have a neat conclusion, but the way Dürrenmatt ends this book is still unusual because he uses a chance event to demonstrate that failure is always a probable outcome. His detective, who has figured out as much as possible about the murderer and has set a perfect trap, is doomed to fail because of an incident outside of his control.
Other topics that are touched on in the book are the nature of justice and how it is determined. The police is portrayed in an ambivalent way, as they are first led astray by the lure of a quick resolution, and then eagerly ignore rules to get what they want. The nuances and shades of gray relating to this are impressive, especially in such a short book. The shortness, however, poses a problem in other areas. That the book sets out to hammer home a certain point is obvious from the start because it is that straightforward and focused; on the downside, that makes it too spare and sober for my liking because there is only the barest of information on the characters, there is no emotional involvement possible or even wanted, and subtlety is nonexistent when it comes to the main message of the book. Overall, it is an interesting and sometimes thought-provoking read, but sadly not as compelling as it should have been.
CBR12 Bingo: Repeat – Adaptation