Durrenmatt, the distinguished Swiss playwright and novelist (The Visit, The Judge and His Hangman), recently returned to the detective story after a long absence with his convoluted, intellectual thriller" The Assignment (1988). Now, as if to prove that last year's book was no fluke, comes a less mannered, more audacious tale, which reveals the identity of the murderer at the very beginning but still leaves unanswered questions at the end. Canton deputy Dr. Isaak Kohler is accompanying a visiting dignitary to the airport when he asks his chauffeur to stop, goes into a restaurant to greet his friend Professor Winter, shoots Winter dead in front of scores of witnesses, and returns to the dignitary dozing in his car. Kohler is arrested, tried, and sentenced to 20 years, but 18 months later he asks the narrator here, the down-at-the-heels young lawyer Felix Spat, to reopen his case on the hypothesis that he was not guilty after all. Why did Kohler kill his old friend and make so little effort to hide his guilt? Why does he want his case reopened? How has Spat (as he confesses at the beginning) been able to get him off despite the overwhelming evidence against him? And what does the murder have to do with the glamorous tramp Monika Steiermann, and with the legion of prostitutes and pimps who are Spat's usual clients? The answers to these questions get more and more obscure, and although Durrenmatt provides a solution to the crime in a concluding Note, most readers will finish the novel still wondering who was responsible for Winter's death. From its brusquely punning title, this reads like a brilliant fragment, and it will frustrate readers' expecting a straightforward detective novel or even a coherent story but tease and reward those who can put up with Spat's alcoholic confessional. Durrenmatt's compelling handling of his favorite themes—the confusion of criminal and victim, the slippery relation between justice and morality, the guilty burden of social responsibility—makes Spat's funny, sad nightmare less like The Murder of Roger Ackroyd than like The Fall or The Crying of Lot 49.
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