REVIEW: The Pledge – Friedrich Dürrenmatt (trs. by Joel Agee)


the pledge Nine years ago a little girl’s body was found in the woods in a farmer’s village near Zürich. Two other girls were murdered in a similar fashion several years earlier in two different townships. No trace of the perpetrator was found. The lieutenant who’s assigned the case in Zürich makes a pledge to the victim’s family to find the killer. Over the course of the investigation the detective becomes obsessed. He has no clue what forces work against him. That is the basic premise that makes up this atypical crime novel The Pledge (Das Versprechen is the German title). The story is short at 172 pages. The novella was published in 1958 by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt and translated by Joel Agee.

The story – told in first person narrative – of The Pledge explores various themes one of which criticizes detective literature as being “unrealistic” and “deceptive” and goes on to show how. Crimes are solved purely by luck and chance. The narrative of the story is a mystery within a mystery and uses a tone that is low-key at the start but then it slowly crescendos to a quiet yet “chilling conclusion.”

Dr. H is a former police chief from the canton of Zürich. He recounts the story about one of his most capable lieutenants who at the pinnacle of his career becomes tirelessly obsessed with finding an elusive killer. The novel is tightly written and shows us what obsession looks like and it ain’t pretty. My expectations at the start of the novel changed as I progressed further into the story. There were some twists to the tale albeit not surprising ones. Whatever point the author was trying to make, he achieved it. I had no idea what to expect when I opened the book because reading the blurb I was only expecting another regular crime novel but this story is much more than that.

The story was originally titled as Requiem for a Detective that speaks to the lack of closure. The transformation of Matthäi, the inspector, who is the focal point of this parable of sorts, was quite startling. Here you have a man at the apex of his career who then throws it all to the side to trap an elusive killer. He’s painstakingly patient and determined. Also he’s deceitful and will use any means to meet his goal. As readers we are privy to the truth when it is finally revealed and so is Matthäi at one point but he’s so consumed that it is a blind spot for him.

This is a well written story. It caught my attention from a review I read at Mrs. Peabody Investigates blog. The Pledge is the study of obsession. I found the novel somewhat credible and the problems of the characters somewhat believable but a bit exaggerated for effect. The pacing was okay, the flow of the story was fine but some scenes did drag a bit with some added repetition. Would I read this story again? Probably. I’m giving this book a B+ because after finishing it, I kept thinking about it. The story is not very violent and is somewhat atmospheric. The best way to approach this novel is to not think of it as a mystery novel. The investigation is significant but it’s not central. The dialogue is probably the best element in the story. The Pledge is not available digitally. It’s print only and available at your favorite retailer. Thank you Mrs Peabody for reviewing this book. B+.

Source: I bought this book

13 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Pledge – Friedrich Dürrenmatt (trs. by Joel Agee)

  1. Many thanks in return for reviewing the novel – always nice, as you see the novel afresh through other readers’ eyes. Yes, it is one that lingers in the mind. When I re-read it (every couple of years), I always find something new to think about. A very unusual and memorable crime novel (or an existential crime novel of sorts?!)


    • It is definitely a memorable crime novel, Mrs P. Thank YOU for bringing it to my attention. I felt frustrated on the protagonist behalf as he is completely consumed with his mission. I read it over before writing this review out. It is a difficult book to discuss without ruining it. I think about midway I figured out who the man was at the gas station and thought: oh no.


  2. Hi Keishon – Yes, I know exactly what you mean about that frustration, especially in the second half when you see the obsession taking over. And you’re right, it is a tricky one to review – although I have to say that’s the kind of problem I experience when reviewing most crime fiction, as so much of the reader’s pleasure is derived from the closure of the plot. There’s always a very fine line between giving enough detail to make it interesting and not giving too much away!


    • There’s always a very fine line between giving enough detail to make it interesting and not giving too much away!

      A dilemma for us all. Thanks Mrs P.


  3. Nice to see you back, Keishon. I am sure I’ll be trying this book sometime, based on yours and Mrs P’s reviews. And on an aside, I have just read my first Julia Spencer-Fleming book thanks to your recommendation, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Review up tomorrow (Thurs)!


  4. Sarah Tanner

    I read this one several years agp and liked it. Your review makes me want to re-read it – I’m pretty sure we have a copy somewhere in the house. Thanks.


  5. Keishon: I enjoyed the book. I read it when I was looking for a Swiss mystery for Kerrie’s Crime on a Euro Pass meme last year. I have wondered what Hollywood did with the book. Have you seen the movie?


    • @Bill I miss mentioning the film version in the review but no, I haven’t. seen the movie but am curious to know how it compares to the book. I see Sean Penn directed and Jack Nicholson starred in it so – off to look for it!

      @Sarah – thanks and hope you enjoy it.


  6. I applaud you for taking an old book off the shelf, dusting it off and putting it in the spotlight. There are just too many books that fall by the wayside as time flies by that most readers never get to enjoy thanks to obscurity. This is a book I think I’d like a lot. To my TBR list it goes!


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