A characteristically tricky exercise in metafictional homicide, sad, funny, and deeply confusing, from the distinguished Swiss inventor of many another labyrinth (The Assignment: On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, 1988, etc.).
Emeritus canton deputy Dr. Isaak Kohler, retired from the law and politics, is escorting a visiting English cabinet minister back to the airport when he asks their car to stop at the Du Théâtre, leaves behind his dozing charge, walks into the restaurant, shoots professor Adolf Winter in front of dozens of witnesses, and calmly leaves. Police don’t succeed in intercepting him at the airport, to which he’s naturally repaired, but they do escort him, all smiling, from a concert that evening. Tried, convicted despite the disappearance of the murder weapon, and imprisoned, Kohler summons up-but-not-coming lawyer Felix Spät to his side and offers him a handsome sum if he’ll investigate the murder. Kohler has no hope of clearing himself; he’s simply wondering “how reality might look if, instead of me, someone else had been the murderer.” Nor is Spät the only one who’s been chosen for such a mad errand; Kohler has asked his old mentor, professor Carl Knulpe, to investigate “the consequences of the murder.” Spät’s inquiries bring him up against a variously distinguished crew that includes two women, Kohler’s daughter, Hélène, and Winter’s unacknowledged daughter, Daphne Müller, who’ll become his lovers, and immerse him in a world in which the line between human beings and ornamental statuary is a lot less clear than he’d like. Although his charge doesn’t provide any alternative suspects, it does leave Spät with a clear resolve after a second trial reverses the guilty verdict: to kill his client.
First begun in 1957 and left uncompleted until 1985, the tale shows clear signs of its long gestation. The epilogue, presented in what passes for Dürrenmatt’s voice, ends in a cascade of moral questions that sound just as confounded as the ruminations of his hapless detective.