For years I approached people as though I was a detective trying to solve a case. I thought logic could be applied to them; I thought that no matter how confusing, how irrational and out of character, any of their behaviour seemed, explanations and answers would be forthcoming if you kept a professional distance and were intelligent and perceptive enough; and that, furthermore, you could, in fact, accurately predict behaviour with a small amount of information. I saw the chaos around me, which so troubled my peers, as being simply a ball of string to untangle. I prided myself on understanding people, even if I only rarely liked them. Then, eighteen months ago I made the decision to climb down from my comfortable vantage point, to engage fully with the world, and found, at closer quarters, that it is surreal and nightmarish, and that any attempt to make sense of it, to impose order upon it, is futile and likely to lead to madness.

I had read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge once before, around five years ago. At that time, I found it, like many other police procedural novels, fun, easy-going, immediately satisfying, yet ultimately inconsequential. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but more likely my judgement was a result of an overriding complacency. I was happy then. It was not until I picked it up again this week, as a different man, as someone who is not at ease with the world or himself, that I came to appreciate how complex and moving it is. It begins with a chance meeting between a writer of detective novels – who is narrating the action – and a police chief. Not long after they are introduced, the author is offered a ride, during which the chief criticises the detective genre. These novels are, he says, a ‘waste of time,’ not because the culprit is always brought to justice – this he considers to be ‘morally necessary’ – but because they proceed logically. You can’t, he advises the narrator, and me too, albeit too late in my case, ‘come to grips with reality by logic alone.’

As a way of illustrating his point he starts to tell a story about one of his officers, Matthäi, which then dominates the rest of the book. These postmodern, meta-fictional aspects of The Pledge are often praised, yet are, for me, one of its few, but not fatal, flaws. The framing narrative, the meeting between the author and the chief, including his criticisms, are too contrived, are gracelessly executed, and, worse still, unnecessary. It is clear that Dürrenmatt himself is speaking through the policeman when he objects to convenient, predictable plotting, and how at odds it is with reality, but these points could, and are, made far more powerfully in the rest of the novel. The reader does not need them to be spelt out quite so clinically. In fact, these elements have the potential to compromise the intensity of what follows, because one always has in mind that one is listening to a story being recounted; it comes close to taking one out of the action, it weakens, if not breaks, the spell.

The reason that these things do not too negatively impact one’s experience of the book is due, in large part, to the author’s ability to create and maintain a foreboding atmosphere. Even before the main storyline is introduced Dürrenmatt writes about the ‘inhuman silence’ of the Swiss canton, of unnaturally dark days, and of mountains that resemble an ‘immense grave.’ One is given the impression that this is a menacing, strange place. The houses are wretched; the sun, when it actually comes out, is malevolent. The writer of detective novels is spooked. He mentions his fear of ‘not waking again’, of feeling as though he is trapped inside an ‘endless, meaningless dream.’ Later, there is the repeated red symbolism, which of course reminds one of blood, but most eerie and unsettling is the role of the hedgehog giant, whose significance will become clear upon reading the book.

“You’re choosing madness as a method, and it takes courage to do that, no question; extreme positions impress people generally these days; but if this method does not lead to its goal, I’m afraid that in the end, all you’ll be left with is the madness.”

The first glimpse one has of Matthäi is as an ‘old man on a stone bench.’ He is ‘unshaven, unwashed’; his clothes are ‘smeared and stained; his eyes are ‘staring, stupefied’; and there is a strong smell of absinthe. His current unfortunate state means that one is eager to find out how a former police officer came to be this way, especially when it is told that he was once a ‘most capable man’, even a ‘genius.’ The crime at the centre of the book is the murder of a child, a girl, perhaps the most emotive kind of crime, and, in the early stages of the investigation, the impression that one gets of Matthäi is of someone who is strong and dispassionate. For example, he is the only one present when the body is found who is able to look directly at the corpse; and the only one willing to shoulder the burden of informing the parents [during which he makes the pledge of the title]. Indeed, in one of my favourite lines, he says to a doctor that he didn’t want to suffer with the world, he wanted to be superior to it.

However, none of this lends any weight to the chief’s description of Matthäi as a genius. The earliest indication of his special ability is when he offers to release the primary suspect to a crowd who have gathered in order to seek vengeance. He says he will turn the man over to them if they can guarantee justice, then proceeds to convince them that this would be impossible, because they cannot prove his guilt. It is a daring move, and evidence not only of his talent, but his arrogance too. Matthäi believes that he can read people, and that reason, his reason, will triumph over disorder. One sees further evidence of this in his unwillingness to accept that the primary suspect is actually guilty, despite him having motive, opportunity, a previous conviction, and the girl’s blood on his clothing. On one level it seems like a kind of a superiority complex, such as when I was at University and would argue the most extreme positions, because I felt as though I could do so better, more logically and consistently, than anyone else could argue their more mainstream opinions.

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As a study of arrogance, The Pledge would be fine, but not quite the masterpiece that it is. What elevates it even further is that one can also interpret Matthäi’s stance as a great, obsessive, and ultimately insane, dedication to his work and, more importantly, to the truth [as he sees it]. The easiest thing would be, of course, to be satisfied with the most probable culprit and close the case. Certainly, the chief, the townsfolk, and his colleagues, are happy to do so. For Matthäi personally, who has landed a excellent job opportunity in Jordan, and is due to leave the country imminently, it is the best, the most sensible thing to do. However, he refuses to, or he can’t, and his behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, his methods and theories more monstrous, as he vows to catch the real perpetrator of the crime. As he pieces together his case, everything that he argues is plausible, but the point made by Dürrenmatt is that logic is so powerful that one can create, and justify, appalling narratives, that in a world of chaos one can find links between an infinite number of unrelated, insignificant things, and thereby imbue them with false significance. It is to his immense credit as an author that he has one rooting for his madman, has one believing in him, even when he ruthlessly uses a small child as bait in order to catch a killer who may not even exist.


It had been fifteen minutes since I ordered the taxi. According to the tracker on my phone it had spent that time down a dead-end street, turning slowly in circles. I considered cancelling, but with the instinctive human yearning for a reasonable explanation I convinced myself that my phone was faulty, that I was overreacting, that the fear I felt was unwarranted. When eventually the car pulled up I got in and asked the driver if he had been having mechanical problems. He told that he had been stuck at traffic lights. The lie unnerved me further. When the vehicle moved, it did so at great speed. I felt for my seatbelt, pulled it across my chest. It would not click into place. It was obstructed by something. ‘It doesn’t work,’ the driver said. I asked him to stop the car. He seemed agitated. ‘It’s fine,’ he said. ‘Stay there.’

It crossed my mind at this point that he meant me harm, and, further, that in harmful situations the victim usually waits for the terrible moment, the blow, before reacting. I was ready to act, to preempt. The driver offered me the backseat, then changed his mind. ‘Stay there, it’s fine,’ he repeated. We sped on. I wondered, with that futile human need for clarification, why he was so insistent on me being in the front of the car. A robbery? A sexual assault? I contemplated jumping, but, in compromise with myself, persuaded him to let me in the back instead. It’s either that or I get out, I stated firmly. What an absurd agreement. A few moments later we pulled up at some traffic lights. ‘My eyes,’ he said. ‘They feel itchy, I can’t see.’ He wants me to get in the front again, I thought. To check his eyes. I didn’t. I asked to be let out, and to my surprise he stopped the car.

I’ve told this story numerous times. Most think that it was nothing, that the danger was a figment of my imagination, that it was no more than dust dirtying the mirror of my mind. Sometimes I think so too. Is it not I who am mad, and not the world? I’ve asked myself that question before. Isn’t it possible, likely even, that I am viewing the world through the prism of my own insanity, and that this is the reason why everything I experience seems so peculiar, offbeat, and frightening? Is that the reasonable explanation for which I yearn? There are no demons in dark corners, they are all in my head. Yes, that is certainly a more straightforward way of looking at things. There was no maniacal taxi driver intent on hurting me, simply a taxi driver who was bad at his job; there are no trapdoors, simply doors upon which my diseased mind has imposed a sinister significance.

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The Ship was written by Hans Henny Jahnn and published in 1949. Information about the author is scarce, but the German was, I’ve read, the son of a ship’s carpenter and the grandson of a builder of ships. This, and the title of course, might lead one to expect from his work something like an ode to sailing and the sea, or even the less thrilling chapters in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, but the reality is far removed from that. The ship itself, which at the beginning of the novel is moored, and doesn’t give hint of being ready to go anywhere, is described as being of ‘unparalleled artistry.’ It was, we’re told, ‘built by a genius.’ The red sails, however, are troubling. More so is that fact of it being stationary, and of it being utilised as something of a party boat; for a ship that doesn’t drive through the water is a ‘useless enterprise,’ is, indeed, ‘an offence to society.’

These are early examples of a strangeness and unease that intensifies as the novel progresses. Some of this is due to the construction of the ship itself. The vessel is, it is revealed, equipped with microphones that allow the supercargo, a government official, to listen in to all conversations. This man is also in contact, in a way that isn’t particularly clear, with another ship that is sailing close behind and which is ready to move in on his say. Even more alarming is that the original ship appears to have secret walls and certain doors can be opened from outside even when locked. All of which gives the impression that the passengers are trapped in what is effectively a surrealist painting or on a floating fairground house of horrors. These people are further spooked by the uncertainties regarding the mission and the cargo. In short, none of them know where they are going, or why, or what is being carried.

In this way, The Ship is a a kind of mystery thriller, albeit a slow-paced one, especially when one factors in the disappearance of a young woman, and her possible murder. Indeed, it has much in common with the ‘locked room’ subgenre, as there are witnesses that see her enter the supercargo’s cabin, but none that see her leave; and yet there is no evidence of foul play when the room is searched. There is not, however, a highly trained detective on hand to unravel the mystery, only the passengers, the greater number of whom – the regular crew – are rapidly losing their minds. Of the others on board, there are three who are of particular interest. There is a captain, who is affable and competent, as long as he is dealing only with traditional captain’s business, but who would, if he were allowed, turn a blind eye to anything he couldn’t easily explain. Secondly, there is the aforementioned supercargo, who seems initially set up to be the villain. He is the only one with knowledge of the cargo and destination of the ship, and he is described as ‘devious’, ‘repulsive’, and ‘exceptional.’ Most telling, however, is his nickname as the ‘grey man’, for his character is vague, changeable. One is never sure what to make of him. Is he victim, loser, pawn or puppet-master?

The third character of note is Gustave, the missing young woman’s lover. He is the person on board who goes through the most significant changes. In the beginning, he stows away on the ship, and one can see in this a shedding of his previous identity, or a means of mentally and emotionally reinventing himself. Indeed, his relationship with Ellena, which had been so solid, falters; he ignores her, first for his new-found love of adventure and comradeship with the crew, and then in his obsession with understanding and explaining the odd nature of, and happenings on board, the ship. Yet far from arriving at any form of enlightenment, he becomes increasingly ‘befuddled.’ It is through Gustave in particular, but also notable members of the crew, that Jahnn illustrates his principle theme.

When faced with the strange or confusing, man will endeavour to look for a reasonable or logical explanation, almost as a kind of comfort blanket. However, it can happen that in searching for a simple, rational explanation one actually creates lavish fantasies, and these, in turn, can push one towards insanity. Moreover, is it also the case that a mind already in the grip of madness, when searching for the rational, will in fact create something monstrous, yet still plausible. Take, for example, the construction of the ship. Gustave refuses to accept, or may not even acknowledge the possibility, that its design is eccentric, but harmless. He sees something sinister in it, a motive. Likewise, the cargo could be anything. It is a secret, yes, but that does not mean that it is something horrifying or supernatural. Perhaps it is guns. Drugs. Or something even more banal. Yet Gustave and the crew concoct ever wilder theories, culminating in a belief that in each coffin-shaped box lies a woman, dead or alive.