commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

der richter und sein henker

A policeman is found dead in his car by the side of a country road. Come to find that he had been attending mysterious political meetings under an assumed name, at the home of an international arch-criminal. Police commissioner Bärlach and his assistant Tschanz take different routes – intuitive and logical, respectively – to the labyrinthine solution of this house-of-mirrors murder case.

body count: five
methods of killing: gunshot (4; pistol); drowning (push from bridge)
narrative type: omniscient

this is the edition that I cite

One archetypal detective-inspector novel is Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Der Richter und sein Henker [The Judge and His Executioner] (1952). Archetypal may not necessarily mean influential. One rarely hears Dürrenmatt mentioned alongside Simenon, or Sjöwall & Wahlöö – and certainly his Kommisär Bärlach is hardly as substantial a literary figure as Maigret or Martin Beck. There are just two Bärlach novels (the other is Der Verdacht, which isn't much like Der Richter und sein Henker). It's thus difficult to talk of formulas or repeated motifs in the Bärlach novels. But though it's a kind of "stand-alone" work in many ways, Der Richter und sein Henker fits beautifully into the detective-inspector genre as a whole.

Bärlach is a middle manager. In fact, the plot of Der Richter und sein Henker is balanced on him as the intermediary between his superior Lutz (the Untersuchungsrichter or director of investigations) and his subordinate Tschanz. This mediating dynamic doesn't just affect their police work; it's the catalyst for the murder that they investigate. Tschanz, the subordinate, is in fact the murderer. (I warned you there would be spoilers.) Tschanz has killed the policeman Schmied, another of Bärlach's subordinates. Tschanz kills Schmied out of envy; Bärlach always favors Schmied over Tschanz. (Bärlach himself insists that his apparent favoritism is really based on merit.) Early in the development of the detective-inspector genre, and in one of its purest, most stylized examples, we see the energies of murder proceed, ironically, from the dynamics of the police commissariat itself.

Bärlach's management of both Schmied and Tschanz leads directly to the novel's tragedies. His perspective is thus crucial to the narrative texture. Structurally, the commissaire character is dramatic because he's trapped between forces. Schmied and Tschanz operate at times as extensions of his will. Lutz, the superior, operates at a higher level where his discretion and power seem to blend with that of the government, or of the universe itself. Only Bärlach, at that middle level, operates with a balance of freedom and constraint that makes his situation intriguing, and inspires the reader's investment in him.

Gastmann, the arch-criminal, is Bärlach's rival. Gastmann's role in the novel is archetypal and formulaic. He is Moriarty; he is D____ from "The Purloined Letter." He is unbelievable (the man who can kill in plain sight without consequences, and go on to plan crime after hideous crime secure from detection). But his very implausibility brackets him away from the novel's drama. Put case that the ultimate criminal exists. He has to exist. He's an assumption of the genre. Bärlach, on the other hand, is not the ultimate detective. He has pursued Gastmann fruitlessly for decades. He's not particularly smarter than Gastmann. He's not as ruthless, or he'd have caught him long since. He's simply persistent, and ultimately succeeds by managing two of his subordinates better than Gastmann manages two of his (the hapless strongmen who are gunned down by Tschanz in the novel's most violent encounter).

Gastmann, a Swiss native, has returned, for whatever nefarious reasons, to the village of Lamboing (near Bern, where Bärlach works, and near the informal internal border between German and French Switzerland). Bärlach puts Schmied on Gastmann's trail. Schmied, under an assumed name, infiltrates Gastmann's social circles, which consist of various aesthetic types – artists, writers, musicians – hobnobbing with industrialists and representatives of foreign powers. Gastmann might as well be a Bond villain (though since the novel did not reach English till 1955, he probably did not influence Ian Fleming's creation of the Bond villain, and Fleming cannot have influenced Dürrenmatt, since Casino Royale did not appear till 1953).

Gastmann is simply bad, and the way to get at him is via a pawn who can shield Bärlach with plausible deniability. When it emerges that Schmied has been shadowing Gastmann under false pretenses, the Bern police can simply reply that Schmied has been carrying out some private agenda of his own. Which is half-true: his agenda is indeed private and not professional, but it is Bärlach's agenda, not Schmied's.

When Schmied is killed, it seems obvious to the reader and to Tschanz that Gastmann has ordered his death. It even seems obvious to Lutz, but since Gastmann is protected by high officials in the Swiss government, Lutz can't approve an investigation that looks too deeply into Gastmann's activities. (On the other hand, once Tschanz has killed Gastmann in a gunfight, it is only too convenient for Lutz to ascribed Schmied's murder to Gastmann, thus neatly tying up a case with a solution temporarily embarrassing but patently necessary.)

But Gastmann has not killed Schmied. The first of the novel's two defining ironies is that Gastmann, guilty of practically everything else that you can imagine, is innocent of the murder that serves as Der Richter und sein Henker's inciting event. In some ways, this innocence is just another of the formulas of the detective novel: the most obvious suspect should never be guilty of the murder. But in others, the innocence is more cosmic. It's more "existential," one might say, but in ways that align not only with the concerns of postwar Europe and philosophical angst, but with the concerns of popular culture and the novel of hard-boiled alienation. As in James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, a murderer is called to account for the murder he didn't do, not the one he did.

Der Richter und sein Henker is therefore a puzzle, and a philosophical reflection (recalling Kafka, Borges, or indeed Poe). But it is also a piece of intellectual fiction enabled by a precise social context. Bärlach sets up Schmied as victim in the course of setting up Gastmann. In turn, he sets Tschanz on Gastmann's trail, presenting the obvious solution: nail Gastmann and satisfy everyone. But Bärlach knows at once that Tschanz, not Gastmann, is the murderer.

Does Bärlach "always already" know everything? The depiction of actual detection in Der Richter und sein Henker is matter-of-fact, to the point of banality. Bärlach figures out that Tschanz has killed Schmied only a few pages into their mutual investigation. His investigative technique is based on calling up a couple of people, or making ordinary inferences about times, places, and distances. He's far from Sherlock Holmes, and he's far from Maigret, for that matter. He just knows that it takes longer to drive somewhere from somewhere else than a suspect will admit, and he knows how to find out how a suspect has rented a car.

Bärlach, early on, has testy conversations with both Lutz and Tschanz about the value of scientific criminology. The conversation is an endless one; it's another of the conventions of the genre of the crime novel, and repeats itself in newer and newer forms as technology advances, the conversation itself never advancing a whit. Lutz tells Bärlach

Sie immer bereit sind, Kommissär Bärlach, einen Fehlgriff gegen die großen Erkenntnisse der modernen wissenschaftlichen Kriminalistik zu beschönigen. Vergessen Sie jedoch nicht, daß die Zeit fortschreitet und auch vor dem berühmtesten Kriminalisten nicht haltmacht. (18)

[Kommissär Bärlach, you're always ready to overlook offenses against the great advances of modern criminalistic science. Don't forget that time moves forward, and doesn't pause for even the most famous detective.]
But the specifics of Bärlach's gripe against modern criminalistic science are hazy. He's perhaps just contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. He tells Tschanz "Ich bin ein großer alter schwarzer Kater, der gern Mäuse frißt" {I'm a big old black cat who happily eats mice] (25) – an animal with the hunter's instinct towards criminal prey (and not a little of the cruel playfulness of the specific feline hunter he invokes; he may well at this point suspect Tschanz himself, so that the entire investigation becomes his cat-and-mouse game with the detective-murderer).

In any case, Bärlach seems to define science as what other people do, and whatever he does is not science, however logical its workings. "Mein Verdacht ist nicht ein kriminalistisch wissenschaftlicher Verdacht. Ich habe keine Gründe, die ihn rechtfertigen" [My suspicion is not a scientific, criminalistic suspicion. I have no proof to back it up], he tells Tschanz (26). But the truth is the truth, as he goes on to explain:

Wenn der, den ich verdächtige, der Mörder ist, werden Sie selbst auf ihn stoßen, freilich im Gegensatz zu mir auf eine einwandfreie, wissenschaftliche Weise. (26)

[If the person I suspect is the murderer, you'll come upon him yourself by a method opposite to mine, impeccably scientific.]
"Gegensatz": the distinction between Bärlach's method and those that Lutz and Tschanz approve of is undefined except by being opposite, and is nearly an arbitrary, structuralist opposite. Again, the opposite is called forth by the structure of their working relations: in order to define himself against superior and subordinate, the commissaire must somehow proceed differently, even if the difference is arbitrary and unmotivated. "Sie haben gesehen, wie wenig ich weiß" [you've seen how little I know], Bärlach tells Tschanz (25); in fact, he needs to know almost nothing at all, except that his knowledge must be the opposite of Tschanz's. And yet at this point Tschanz knows for certain who the murderer is (it's Tschanz himself), even though Bärlach plays along with the idea that Tschanz is proceeding from a scientific objectivity: "Vor allem müssen wir objektiv bleiben" [above all we have to stay objective] (26). Objectivity would seem to be the absence of prejudice, crucial to a novel where the themes of justice and judgment are so prevalent; yet again, the almost preternatural assessment of guilt makes Bärlach's epistemology somewhat suspect, as if he were cheating against even the intuitive methods of non-scientific detection in being endowed by his author with perfect foreknowledge of the solutions to the mysteries he encounters. Unlike Lutz and Tschanz, for instance, Bärlach never seriously suspects Gastmann of any involvement in Schmied's death: "Ich habe keinen Augenblick daran geglaubt" [I never believed that for a moment], he tells Gastmann during their last encounter (99). Yet never to suspect the arch-criminal who is one's archenemy of killing one's closest lieutenant comes close to the kind of omniscience that is usually the province of authors.

Hemmed in by scientific method above and below, Bärlach simply knows what he knows. Gastmann accuses Bärlach of a careerism marked by the grinding out of methodical successes:

So lebten wir denn. Du ein Leben unter deinen Vorgesetzten, in deinen Polizeirevieren und muffigen Amtsstuben, immer brav eine Sprosse um die andere auf der Leiter deiner bescheidenen Erfolge erklimmend (71).

[So we lived our lives. You lived a life reporting to superiors, in your stuffy precinct office, climbing one nice rung after another up the ladder toward your dream of success.]
But we sense that the accusation rings hollow. That's what an arch-criminal would say, after all: you little policeman with your little case files, look at you in the office while I'm out in the vast world: "ich dagegen bald im Dunkeln" [and me, by contrast, wholly in the dark] (71), as Gastmann puts it, free of systems and organizations, exploring the unlimited free will of the criminal imagination. Gastmann does not realize the many freedoms that Bärlach enjoys. Near retirement (like many commissaires in fiction), mortally ill in the bargain, Bärlach has stopped climbing the ladder of success somewhere in the middle, leaving ambition to ferment above and below him while he enjoys the latitude simply to pursue murder.

Bärlach uses his pursuit of Schmied's murderer to punish Gastmann for his other crimes. Since he seems to know almost at once that Tschanz is Schmied's actual murderer, for motives unconnected to Gastmann, Bärlach can leverage Tschanz's own ambitions and weaknesses against both of them. The structure of Tschanz's job makes it possible for Bärlach to channel his actions toward Gastmann's downfall. Tschanz himself gives the best account of how his professional circumstances set him in motion. Even while trying to deflect Bärlach's attention from his guilt, Tschanz can't help but reveal the jealousies that have led him to murder Schmied:

"Jahrelang bin ich im Schatten gestanden, Kommissär," keuchte er. "Immer hat man mich übergangen, mißachtet, als letzten Dreck benutzt, als besseren Briefträger!" (87)

["For years I've been standing in the shadows, Kommissär," he sobbed. "Everybody's always climbed over me, underestimated me, used me like the lowest piece of garbage, an errand boy at best!"]
In the shadows, Bärlach agrees: specifically in the shadow of Schmied, the better detective (and the better-educated gentleman, as Tschanz bitterly remarks). And just when Tschanz is about to solve a major murder case (by treacherously ascribing a murder to Gastmann that he himself has committed), the overlapping concerns of the bureaucratic administration are about to deprive him of success.
"Und jetzt," schrie Tschanz, "da ich einmal eine Chance habe, soll alles wieder für nichts sein, soll meine einmalige Gelegenheit hinaufzukommen in einem blödsinnigen diplomatischen Spiel zugrunde gehen! Nur Sie können das noch ändern, Kommissär, sprechen Sie mit Lutz, nur Sie können ihn bewegen, mich zu Gastmann gehen zu lassen." (87)

["And now," Tschanz yelled, "now that I finally have a chance, is it going to come to nothing? Am I going to miss my only opportunity because of some stupid diplomatic game? You're the only one who can change that, Kommissär – talk with Lutz. You're the only one who can get him to let me go after Gastmann."]
But Bärlach refuses to intervene with Lutz; as he explains to Tschanz, he still doesn't have the slightest reason to believe that Gastmann has killed Schmied (because, of course, no such reason exists). Logic, as Tschanz insists, dictates that Gastmann at least be pursued, and his henchmen investigated. Like Gastmann himself in the original "perfect crime" that haunts Bärlach's lifelong pursuit of him, Tschanz has chosen his victim carefully. He's killed Schmied in the knowledge that another person – a murderer, at that – has had strong logical reasons to kill him. (Gastmann's original victim had strong motives for suicide.) But Bärlach is familiar with the stratagem of cloaking one's crime in the guise of another's. And by maximizing Tschanz's frustration in the face of red tape, he winds Tschanz up to take the final murderous step of killing Gastmann as well. It's the perfect crime to conceal the perfect crime, closing the circle by pinning the first of a series of murders on the final victim.

"Schmied war der beste Kriminalist, den ich je gekannt habe" [Schmied was the best detective I ever knew], says Bärlach in the course of refuting Tschanz's contentions that favoritism has led to Schmied's promotion (87). Institutional workplaces are breeding grounds for such arguments, which often surface in commissaire novels. In other kinds of detective novels – particularly in the classic consulting-detective story that traces its lineage from Poe through Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie – it's assumed that the police are untalented, time-serving functionaries who lack the special gifts reserved to Dupin, Holmes, or Poirot. (Monk is a late avatar of the type, as Robert Rushing shows in Resisting Arrest.) When a cop in a crime novel does show talent, he is typically a lonely soul who seems to work well outside the social frameworks of his department (Lieutenant Columbo). But in the commissaire novel, the talent of the detective may bear an uncertain relation to his professional success. The geniuses in the commissariat are sometimes buried in the ranks (Fazio, Melander, Kollberg), and the Peter Principle is well in evidence (to some extent, the higher-ups play the role reserved for the police proper in the classic consulting-detective story).

Der Richter und sein Henker, though early in the development of the genre, shows a sophisticated complication of the dynamics of individual talent and professional reward. Bärlach himself plays a Columbo-like role as intuitionist loner. Or at least that's his mystique; as I've noted, his actual achievements in deduction are somewhat banal, and his backstory of success in detection is suggested rather than described. Like many great fictional detectives, he's dependent on operatives: his subordinates must drive him around, must do his legwork for him. Schmied is the best of them, though he dies before the novel's opening sentence, and we have only the highly rhetorical assertion of the highly interested Bärlach to characterize his own talent.

Tschanz, by contrast, seems all along to be a good, active, intelligent detective. But we come to realize that all his activities are hollow performances, meant to suggest the maximum of investigative skill while covering his own guilt. His actions are staged detection. He deliberately arrives at the wrong solution, which is nonetheless rhetorically satisfying to the authorities Tschanz immediately undermines his own solution by killing himself, but that move can be attributed to other motives, so the case folds perfectly up into itself and disappears at the novel's end.

Pierre Bayard contends in Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? that the detective (Poirot) gets the solution wrong, and follows up this claim in L'affaire du chien des Baskerville that Sherlock Holmes was also wrong – indeed the implication is that a fictional detective always gets the solution wrong, that the ostensible answer to a fictional mystery is always an avoidance of the fact, an imposition of narrative order on the intractable – or the unfaceable. Tschanz gets the solution wrong, but how do we know that Bärlach gets it right? Perhaps Tschanz's suicide comes from the realization that Bärlach can twist the real story – a story of Gastmann's actual guilt? – in a way that frames Tschanz for the murder.

We don't know, and of course since the story is a fiction it hardly matters. What matters in my reading is that the primal imperatives of the detective story are filtered, in Der Richter und sein Henker, through the social setting of the police precinct, what Gastmann calls the "muffigen Amtsstuben," the stuffy office, of the organizational chart and its official procedures. The precinct office is a place where guilt is detected, ascribed, rhetorically enforced, and indeed socially created – as perhaps all criminality, if not all evil, must necessarily be.

I'll close on a personal note. I have read Der Richter und sein Henker many times (though perhaps not quite often enough, given my porous memory, to remain unsurprised by its twists at each new reading). Der Richter und sein Henker was the first novel I ever read in German, long before I became immersed in the language. I remain impressed by the way Dürrenmatt's novel bridges the gulf between genre and literary fiction. In this respect, Der Richter und sein Henker shows the way for Alain Robbe-Grillet, Tom Stoppard, Paul Auster, and many another literary writer who has used the techniques of crime novels to craft self-referential, hyper-modernist fictions. More than any other book, Der Richter und sein Henker has shown me that such fiction is not only interstitial – lying between, or ironically commenting on, two sides of a divide – but fully participates in both entertainment and art. It's one of my favorite books, period.


Bayard, Pierre. L'affaire du chien des Baskerville. 2008. Paris: Minuit, 2010.
Bayard, Pierre. Qui a tué Roger Ackroyd? 1998. Paris: Minuit, 2008.
Rushing, Robert A. Resisting Arrest: Detective fiction and popular culture. New York: Other Press, 2007.