Suspicion by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Review published on August 24, 2017.

Suspicion is a real treat for Euro-noir readers, one of my favourite reads of the year so far. Pushkin Vertigo is an imprint making a fine job of bringing some of the forgotten classics of world crime literature to a new audience. In the last few months, they have released three titles by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Pledge, The Judge and the Hangman and this novel, SuspicionThe Pledge is perhaps best known for the Jack Nicholson movie, which is a good film but lacks some of the depth and complexity of the novel. I think all three books are a must for lovers of noir fiction but for me Suspicion, originally published in 1951, is the best of the three. A jewel in the crown of European crime writing. It is a slim novel, only 157 pages, the writing is spare, not a word out of place. Truly grounded in the noir tradition of the lone wolf who just can’t let it go until he solves the mystery. The story plumbs the dark depths of Nazi war crimes in a concentration camp during the war. Suspicion still feels original and pacy despite the wealth of literature on the same topic in the decades since. The novel must have been explosive when published. The first translation into English in 1962 would have provided an intimate account of details not widely talked about at the time. In that sense, it is a brave book.

Inspector Barlach is an old man; he is in hospital recovering from a serious operation but his illness will probably be the death of him. Ever the detective, he senses something is wrong when his surgeon reacts to a photograph in an article he is reading. It shows Dr. Hehle performing an operation without anaesthetic at Stutthof concentration camp. The doctor reluctantly reveals that the man in the photograph reminds him of a colleague, Dr. Emmenberger, now running a clinic for the very wealthy in the Swiss mountains. There are rumours about the clinic and it’s aged clientele. Of course it can’t be Emmenberger because he saw out the war in Chile and Hehle committed suicide in 1945, but Barlach’s is not so sure. His boss, Lutz, delivers the bombshell that he must finally retire, while he appears to accept this he has one last investigation on his mind and so begins the hunt. The problem for Barlach is that he may be the hunter or the prey.

Suspicion is remarkable for its fearless tackling of a difficult theme – the hunt for a war criminal. The novel has the most wonderful collection of strange and charismatic characters, beautifully drawn, slightly surreal, that give the novel a very distinct feel. Look out for the giant Jewish character, Gulliver. Barlach is enigmatic, philosophical and his methods of detection are unique. By the end of the story I had laughed, become engaged with the philosophical debate between the hero and the villain, and thrilled at the denouement. The sense of danger at the climax of the book and the solution hidden until the very last few pages is as tense as any I have read in a long time. And all in a short precise novel.

The premise, which may seem a little more familiar now, was written 70 years ago and it is ingenious and intriguing. Even when the author wants you to know what is going on it still unfolds so originally that it makes no difference to the enjoyment of the story. While Simenon has lasted, ever popular, I think Dürrenmatt is his match for defining character with brief strokes of the pen, with exploring the human psyche and creating fascinating plots. Of course, he was nowhere near as prolific. If you like clever, dark crime fiction this is for you.

Paul Burke 5/4

Suspicion by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Pushkin Vertigo 9781782273400 pbk Jul 2017

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