Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion)


My first review this year for the always inspiring German Literature Month – see more reviews and recommendations here, including another review of Dürrenmatt by Jacqui.

The playwright at the age of two, from
The playwright at the age of two, from

I still find it hard to believe that Dürrenmatt was writing both this novel and its predecessor as a way of paying bills (for his wife’s hospitalisation, amongst other things). In fact, this one was written and published at a rapid pace, almost concurrently, in weekly installments in the populist newspaper Schweizer Beobachter. At the time he was also working on a play and living in rather cramped conditions with his small family in the house of his mother-in-law on the lake in Biel. Some of it was written in the hospital in Berne, where half of the action takes place.

Dürrenmatt was well-known for his anti-Nazi stance and for poking fun at his fellow countrymen’s supposed neutrality during the Second World War. Suspicion takes up where The Judge and His Hangman left off. Inspector Bärlach is in hospital recovering from an operation which has only managed to prolong his life by a year. His surgeon, Dr. Hungertobel, is also a friend and as they sit together chatting one day, the doctor thinks that he recognises an old classmate of his in a picture of a Nazi camp doctor known for his terrible atrocities. He quickly repudiates that idea, however, as his classmate spent the war years in Chile and even published articles in medical journals during that time. But the seeds of suspicion have been planted in Bärlach’s mind and this most intuitive and internalised of detectives embarks upon a personal investigation from his hospital bed.

There are similarities with Josephine Tey’s ‘The Daughter of Time’ in this set-up, but the stubborn Swiss inspector goes one step further. He persuades the reluctant Hungertobel to move him to convalesce in the sanatorium for wealthy people opened by the doctor he suspects of Nazi war crimes. This is when the story becomes much less of a straightforward investigation and takes on certain nightmarish, almost surreal qualities.

verdachtDürrenmatt’s playwriting skills come to the fore in this book. We have far fewer descriptions of landscapes and houses: nearly every scene takes place in an enclosed, indoor space, quite claustrophobic. Dialogues drive the plot and some of them even turn into serial monologues as first one character and then another spells out their view of the world, their beliefs and values (or lack thereof). As one of the protagonists says:

You’re silent. People nowadays don’t like answering the question: ‘What do you believe in?’ It’s become indecent to ask such a question. ‘We don’t like using big words’ is what we modestly tell ourselves, but most of all we don’t like giving an exact answer… (own translation)

With just a few deft strokes and excellent use of dialogue and humour, the author sketches some unforgettable character portraits: the stubborn and profoundly religious nurse from the Emmental (interesting aside: Dürrenmatt himself was born there as the son of a Protestant pastor); the assistant doctor Marlok, a former Communist who has lost all her ideals and needs daily doses of morphine to maintain her beauty and perhaps her conscience; the increasingly uneasy Dr. Hungertobel, who wants to believe the best of every one he encounters.

Above all, it is not just Bärlach’s life which is in danger, but also his soul, for the nihilistic voices taunt him and his belief in justice:

You’re the kind of fool who swears by mathematical truths. The law is the law. X = X … But the law isn’t the law: power is… Nothing is what it seems in this world, everything is a lie. When we say law, we mean power; and when we say power, we think of riches…

Dürrenmatt captures perfectly the spirit of his age, the immediate post-war years, with all the doubts, anxieties and dislike of any kind of ideology. As the world descended into the newly rigid battle trenches of the Cold War chaos, suspicion becomes a way of life. But how can humanity survive on nihilism alone?

So, not a conventional crime novel as such, but posing many moral dilemmas instead. Yet it still has puzzle-solving and tension (including a ‘race against the clock’) to please crime readers. The author takes up the theme of guilt and responsibility, revenge and justice again and again, including in his best-known plays Romulus the Great, The Visit and The Physicists.




17 thoughts on “Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Der Verdacht (Suspicion)”

  1. I’m glad we’ve ended up publishing our Inspector Barlach reviews on the same day. Hurrah for Dürrenmatt! It’s so interesting to read your commentary on the author as it helps to put his work into a broader context.

    Claustrophobic is a great word for this novella. I found it much more unnerving than its predecessor, The Judge and his Hangman. Great commentary on the supporting characters in the clinic, too. I can see I might have nightmares about Marlok tonight…

  2. How fascinating! I read “The Judge and His Hangman” some years in a battered old Penguin (which I think I still have) but I had no idea there was a sequel – shall be looking out for it!

  3. Sometimes those more reflective books – the ones that pose moral and other questions – are the most memorable, Marina Sofia. And I do like the premise for this one. I also like that use of both wit and deeper reflection to make a point. I can see why you enjoyed this as much as you did.

  4. As i said on Jacqui review he is a writer I have not tried yet , I ve him on my list of writers to read . I am in sheffield on saturday so hoping it may be in the bookshop there

  5. I’ve just been leaving a longish comment on Jacqui’s post, so I’d better not waffle on here. I found Suspicion to be an absolute page-turner and really quite sensationalist (you could imagine someone like Edgar Wallace deploying a very similar plot), despite the importance of its subtext. You’ve given the book and its background an excellent writeup here: many thanks for a great read!

  6. A really great review, Marina. I’m glad you and Jacqui reviewed him this year. For one – Swiss authors don’t get as much attention as the German and Austrian authors do but also because he is brilliant. I like his plays a great deal too.

  7. Great to read another excellent review of this book! One of the interesting things about the crime novels of Dürrenmatt is that he always claimed that they were written under the influence of his Theodor Fontane reading. He even claimed that he never read Simenon or Friedrich Glauser, although his Bärlach is clearly a “brother”of Maigret and Studer. I think I got already an idea for German Lit Month 2016…

    1. I definitely see the link with Simenon and Glauser – which reminds me to search out the Glauser novels again, as it’s been far too long and far too little…

  8. Great review. I hadn’t thought of the connection to his skills as a dramatist until you mentioned it but I do remember much of the tension being created by Barlach’s lack of freedom of movement and the claustrophobic settings this created.

  9. And in 2020 here in New York and I found this lol. I read Suspicion on a hospital bed here after thinking I’d had a stroke, so apt. It becomes quite surreal as does The Visit, but The Assignment is probably his wildest book, perpetual underground wars, murders at ancient relics and women being hunted in the desert by madmen in tractors. Fun stuff!

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