I know the final week’s theme for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca is contemporary novellas, but today I have two more classic novellas for you instead. Contemporary ones to come soon!
The Judge & His Hangman by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1950)
Translated by Joel Agee (2006)
I was keen to tie in #NovNov with German Reading Month hosted by Lizzy – and this was the only novella length book originally published in German I had on the shelves. Dürrenmatt was actually Swiss, but wrote in German. He wrote four well regarded crime novellas, including The Pledge, which was filmed with Jack Nicholson. This book, and its sequel, Suspicion, both feature Inspector Barlach, and are unusual in their existential outlooks, presaging books such as The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (one of my top ten ever reads).
When Ulrich Schmied, a police lieutenant from Bern, is found murdered in his car on a lonely stretch of road between two villages some distance from the city, it falls to his boss, Inspector Barlach to investigate. Barlach picks a Sergeant Tschanz to assist him in the legwork, for Barlach is ill and prefers to work from his desk or home where he can, (as the book progresses, it becomes clear that he has stomach cancer.). Tschanz produces Schmied’s appointments diary, in which there are several dates marked with a ‘G’; together, they speculate:
“G could mean all sorts of thing,” Barlach said. “A woman’s name, or anything.”
“Hardly a woman’s name,” Tschanz replied. “Schmied’s fiancée’s name is Anna, and Schmied was a steady sort of guy.”
“I don’t know about her either,” the inspector admitted; and seeing that Tschanz was surprised at his ignorance, he said, “All I’m interested in Tschanz, is who killed Schmied.”
“Of course,” Tschanz replied politely. But then he shook his head and laughed. “You’re a strange man, Inspector.”
“I’m an old black tomcat who likes to eat mice.” Barlach said this very seriously.
He’s an intriguing character already. They soon discover what the G stands for, and that Schmied was on his way to a secret meeting with some influential businessmen. What was he doing there? It turns out that the host ‘G’ is an old nemesis of Barlach, and that his past will return to haunt him.
I can say no more, for the story is a mere 124 pages in the smaller paperback format in total, i.e. not very long and to say any more would spoil things. Barlach’s methods are definitely unconventional. He is an intuitive thinker, and in his debilitated state, although determined to carry on, is more than happy to act as bait, letting the killer come to him.
Dürrenmatt was well known for his dislike of the conventional mechanics of crime novels, and certainly there is little of that here. His inspector doesn’t ever feel compelled to explain his actions, even if they appear absurd. That’s the way Dürrenmatt liked it! Reading this slim volume, I’m now extremely keen to read more Dürrenmatt. Luckily I have more substantial The Pledge on my shelves.
Source: Own copy. Pushkin Vertigo small paperback, 124 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
All I knew about this book was that they made a film of it in the late 1960s starring Jane Fonda, and that it was about a dance marathon. I had no idea it was published in 1935 and was set in the great depression. I also had no idea it began with a murder…
I stood up. For a moment I saw Gloria again, sitting on that bench on the pier. The bullet had just struck her in the side of the head; the blood had not even started to flow. The flash from the pistol still lighted her face. Everything was as plain as day. She was completely relaxed, was completely comfortable. The impact of the bullet had turned her head a little away from me; I did not have a perfect profile view but I could see enough of her face and her lips to know she was smiling. The Prosecuting Attorney was wrong when he told the jury she died in agony, friendless, alone except for her brutal murderer, out there in that black night on the edge of the Pacific. He was as wrong as a man can be. She did not die in agony. She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile. How could she have been in agony then? And she wasn’t friendless.
I was her very best friend. I was her only friend. So how could she have been friendless?
Apologies for the long quote, but that’s the whole of the first chapter, the first page for you and it tells you a lot about both the narrator and murderer, Robert Syverten, and the girl he killed, Gloria Beatty.
From this point McCoy takes us back to when Robert and Gloria met and goes on from there to the event above. However, it also gives us on the facing pages of each new chapter, line by line, the judge’s speech as Robert is sentenced to death for Gloria’s murder – one sentence per chapter. You’ll be as intrigued as I was to find out how this came to pass.
I also had no idea that these dance marathons went on for so long – thinking they were maybe 2 or 3 days max. But no, they go on for weeks and weeks, because the participants get ten minute breaks every 110 minutes, they have cots they can lie on, they get fed. They can get sponsored too – useful for when your shoes and clothes start to wear out. The promoters report from the hall on the radio, desperate to sell audience tickets to watch the shufflers as they become, and they stage sprints and derby races in which the pair coming last are eliminated so the pool gradually begins to decrease. The prize money for the winning couple is around $1500 dollars or so – a lot of money in those days, and some of the entrants are there because you get food and board! Some have tactics, others don’t except for not coming last in the eliminations. It’s a sordid, exploitative ordeal for the dancers,
It’s a painful existence, in all senses of the word, and people will snap! Gloria is completely nihilistic right from the start, she rather reminded me of the unnamed girl in My Face For the World to See by Alfred Hayes who is rescued from drowning by a scriptwriter, another depressed young woman in LA. There’s barely anything pleasant about this depressing novella at all, although for a long while Robert is quite up beat, but Gloria’s black moods and cussing, her lack of wanting to be there, the mouth she has on her will drag him down, down, down.
And funnily enough, this novella has been extolled as a great piece of absurdist existentialism – just like Dürrenmatt!
Source: Own copy. Serpent’s Tail paperback, 122 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)