I read this book for the European Reading Challenge
German title: Der Richter und sein Henker
Year published: 1950
Year Englished: 1954, by Cyrus Brooks
The Judge and His Hangman - Friedrich Dürrenmatt
It all starts with the discovery by a constable of a police detective’s corpse, in a car parked near a Swiss village. Commissioner Bärlach, an old, experienced detective takes the case despite ill health - he has been plagued with stomach pain that requires a surgery he’s been procrastinating. When Bärlach discovers that the murdered man had assumed an alias and attended parties at the house of a certain Herr Gastmann in the village, Bärlach’s investigation is suddenly sabotaged by his superior Dr. Lucius Lutz. Lutz was put off by Gastmann's lawyer who implied that Gastmann was getting protection from the highest levels of the Swiss government, which in turn was being pressured by politicians and arms manufacturers who do not want their lucrative business disturbed.
By hinting at these kinds of cozy dodgy relationships in the establishment, the author challenges the complacent majority to think about whether Switzerland was genuinely neutral in WWII. During the war, the Swiss authorities refused normal diplomatic protection for Jewish Swiss citizens in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries. Swiss banksters made it needlessly easy for the Nazis to loot their victims' assets. Switzerland's government granted generous credits to the criminal regimes of Germany and Italy and offered them financial privileges. After the war, bankers were not cooperative with surviving heirs that were trying to find and claim the accounts of their murdered relatives.
Anyway, Bärlach quickly realizes that Gastmann was an old opponent, who, as a young man, had murdered an innocent man in cold-blood, on a bet. Since then, Bärlach had been following this man, who always took on new aliases, but could never pin anything on him. Bärlach realizes that he must continue his investigations in order to produce a just end which cannot be reached in legal ways.
Thus, given the moral and ethical failures of the authorities and captains of the banking industry, the author examines the character of a disillusioned individual who does not battle the ordinary unfolding of events with a bureaucratic protocol but with his own sense of right and wrong. Bärlach is convinced that criminals are caught when the police can exploit the criminal’ mistakes in planning, executing, and covering up a crime. Crooks are humans and humans are fallible because nobody - however fiendishly clever- can predict how reality will turn out in the wake of a crime. His nemesis Gastmann, however, argues that the chaotic “entanglement of human relationships” lends itself to unsolvable crimes and lack of proof that could stand in a court of law.
Again because it is very short, it is worthwhile to read it twice: the first time as a crime novel for the sake of untangling the plot’s the surprising twists and the second time as a jumping off point for curious philosophical questions and issues in cognitive psychology, if that is the reader’s bent.