Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Dangerous Book

What's the most dangerous book you ever read?  When someone asks that question, they generally mean a book that's dangerous because of its ideas or transgressive content.  For certain people, it may be a book they read while living in a country where specific repressions apply - political, social, what have you - a book that restrictive forces in that place consider subversive. But what about a situation where you're reading a book that shouldn't be a threat to anyone? By any objective standard, you're not reading something taboo, but circumstances have made the book you're reading dangerous to you alone. What then?  I had that experience once, and I was reminded of it the other day when I was rearranging my bookshelf and came across the book that caused my nervousness - Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Pledge.

The Pledge, subtitled Requiem for the Detective Novel in its original edition, concerns an investigation conducted in a Swiss village by Inspector Matthai.  One day away from retirement after a renowned career as a police inspector, he gets entangled in a child murder case, and this case upends his life.

Though a suspect is caught and confesses after hours of interrogation, Matthai does not believe that the man is the killer.  There have been other children murdered in the area over the past months, and Matthai is convinced that a serial killer is behind the deaths.  He tells his colleagues that the man in custody is not the person they need to catch.  No one agrees with him, however, and the department closes the case.  Undeterred, Matthai promises the murdered child's parents that he will catch the actual killer.  This is his pledge.  And after making his pledge, in retirement, using his own money, he dedicates himself to conducting an investigation that he is sure will catch the real killer, who he says will strike again.

I don't want to give away how the novel plays out. If you haven't read it, or seen the 2001 movie adaptation with Jack Nicholson as Matthai (directed by Sean Penn), you're in for a treat. It's a treat with a kick, though. The Pledge has an ending that is perfect for the story preceding it and that serves as a commentary on detective fiction endings in general.  It's not an ending you easily forget.   

So where does the danger in reading The Pledge come in?  It resulted from an unfortunate fluke. 

I first read the book when I was in my senior year at SUNY Binghamton University. I read the novel for pleasure, not a class. I was living alone in my small ground floor apartment, and I remember I was reading it at night, on a weekday, when somebody knocked on my door. When I opened the door, I found two local policeman standing there, and though they were professional and polite, they were quite serious. Now that day on my bus trips to and from campus - about a thirty minute ride each way - I had seen police out in force. They had roadblocks set up in various parts of town.  This was highly unusual, to say the least, in Binghamton, but for whatever reason, in my student obliviousness, I hadn't even bothered to ask anyone what the police activity was about.

The two officers at my door now told me.  A child (aged 10 or 11, as I recall) had disappeared that morning, and the hunt for the boy was on.  The boy lived with his parents in the neighborhood where I did, and I had to assume that the large police presence in my area especially meant the police had a lead and suspected possible foul play. 

I invited the two policemen into the apartment, and we talked awhile.  They asked me general questions about myself (it was nothing unusual for them to encounter a student since Binghamton is a college town) and some questions about how I'd spent my day.  I didn't put up any objections to them looking around my place, a studio type arrangment with a living room/bedroom, a kitchen, and a bathroom  Though surprised to hear about the reason for their visit, I was calm and amiable, and they remained professional throughout. Still, the entire time, I kept glancing over at my book.  I was well into The Pledge, and Inspector Matthai, in the Swiss countryside, was obsessively pursuing his search for the predator who he knew would kill another child.  I had left the hardbound book on a chair, its title plainly visible, and the absurd thought occurred to me, "What if one of these cops knows the book and is a Durrenmatt fan?"

It seemed unlikely.  And yet my mind kept racing: "He'll get suspicious. He'll think I'm the guy who snatched the child today.  He'll think I'm a psychopath who takes his inspiration from fiction and here I am reading for ideas on how to get my next victim..."

I may even have started to sweat.

No, not really.  I did in fact have those thoughts but I never perspired or betrayed nerves. After about 15 minutes, the two policemen thanked me for my cooperation and left.  I closed the door behind them, heaved a sigh, and went back to my book.  I laughed at myself.  Such silly thoughts.  Why would either of them know The Pledge?  But hold on a second. What if they were now staking out my apartment, surrounding me even as I returned to Matthai, ready to move in and grab me? 

That didn't happen, but the man who owned the house in which I had my rooms (there was a floor above mine where somebody else lived), told me days later that the police had indeed checked the building's celler when I was off at school the day after their visit.  Of course, I have no idea what their impressions were of the house's other tenant.  In any event, no body was found in that cellar, and despite my slight paranoia connected to my reading of The Pledge, I didn't notice anyone tailing me in the days to come.  I finished the novel without incident.

And the upshot of the real life narrative, the fate of the actual missing child?

After all these years, I can't for the life of me remember the reason behind his disappearence. But I do recall that he was found alive and unharmed.


Art Taylor said...

Wow, Scott—what a story here. I've not read the novel myself, but not likely I'll forget your tale about it. Any idea why they visited your house? So unsettling! (And glad the boy was found OK.)

Holly West said...

What Art said--this is quite a story. It's interesting to get your reactions to being questioned--the nervousness and such--even when you were completely innocent. I'd probably be quaking in my boots.

scott adlerberg said...

Yes, just having the police questioning you over something so serious plays on your nerves. And they were truly quite courteous. Still....what really surprised me was to hear later they'd searched the building's cellar. Did the police really think I may have done something to that child? I was wondering.

Holly West said...

Me, too. I wonder if the dept. still has records of the case and whether you could see them? I know you probably have other things to do BUT I NEED THIS MYSTERY SOLVED.

scott adlerberg said...

Ha! Holly, I may consider this a personal cold case and see what I can find out.