Novels are cumbersome beasts, for one very good reason: they are expected to coalesce into a solid shape. Modern novels have recognized this awkwardness and decided, rather stupidly, to eschew the tightness of structure altogether in favor of a hippie motto such as "life is a mess, so why shouldn't art be as well?" Surely, there are certain patterns in life, both salubrious and detrimental, and people can be wholly aware of the damage they are inflicting upon themselves and still persist in their bad habits (dating the wrong type of partners; smoking; picking arguments and criticizing others instead of ameliorating their own conditions; lamenting their lazy bourgeois fate). Yet few are those who assume the Archimedean point and absorb the wavelengths of their existence in their totality. When we reach the twilight of our days we may reflect on what has and has not passed, the opportunities forsaken or abused, the lives we touched and those we could not reach, but it takes a certain attitude to weave these threads into a tapestry. Much easier to leave it all in an untangled knot – and here I'm afraid I must dissent. I may walk the beach of my past, step gently into the spindrift, and recollect all at once every other moment in which I inhaled the sea air, but leaving the shreds of life in a corner unattended is beyond my capacity. Closure is not as important as knowing what lies at the heart of our machinations, a basic but paramount premise and one that fuels this fine novel.
Little can be expected of a dying protagonist, which might work to his advantage. We are therefore necessarily underwhelmed by the appearance of Bern police commissioner Hans Bärlach, a crusty, deathly ill old snoop whose faith in his own abilities wends its way through treacherous paths. For a large portion of the novel, Bärlach is bedridden and visited by a motley crew of colleagues: Hungertobel, his physician and friend, Gulliver, a ragamuffin behemoth and alcoholic, and Fortschig, a penniless, slightly mad writer of a feuilleton called the Apfelschuss (in the tradition of this Swiss hero). And it is precisely leafing through a magazine during bedrest that our Commissioner finds a picture of a certain Doctor Nehle who worked for some unwholesome forces at their worse outposts in the recently concluded Second World War. What is interesting about this Nehle, otherwise a common barbarian made famous by his cruelty, is his resemblance to a Doctor Emmenberger, who happens to run one of the choicest private clinics Switzerland has to offer. Sick and somewhat delirious, Bärlach pursues the likeness to the point of suggesting that this haphazard photo is anything but the residue of design and that Emmenberger and Nehle have much more in common.
Facts are then gathered: Emmenberger went off during the war to Chile, where he continued publishing esoteric articles and developing his fantastic career; Nehle, on the other hand, opted to serve the devil and would die by his own hand in a Hamburg hotel. His specialization were procedures without anesthesia, whose survival was rewarded with freedom – but he made sure that no one survived. No one, that is, except the giant Gulliver, a learned man of tremendous spirituality who one night tells Bärlach of his horrifying experiences in a torture camp:
This figure with countless victims on his conscience became something legendary, an outlaw, as if even the Nazis had been ashamed of their own. And yet Nehle lived on and no one doubted that he existed, not even the most diehard of atheists, because one most readily believes in a God who concocts devilish torments.
Putatively, Gulliver is talking about Nehle; but Emmenberger keeps surfacing as someone who could have attempted to force Nehle, a less cultured man with no classical education and an overly Berliner flavor to his German, to do his bidding. It just so happens that Hungertobel and Emmenberger were at medical school together, which leads Hungertobel to narrate a climbing accident from those years involving both doctors and three other young colleagues:
We knew full well that there was an emergency operation that could help, but no one dared think about it. Only Emmenberger understood and did not hesitate to act. He immediately examined the man from Lucerne, disinfected his knife in boiling water on the stove range and then performed an incision called a cricothyrotomy that occasionally has to be used in emergency situations in which the larynx is pierced between the Adam's apple and the cricoid to open up an air passage. This procedure was not the horrible part .... it was what was reflected in both their faces. The victim was almost numb owing to a lack of oxygen but his eyes were still open, wide open, and so he must have seen everything that happened, even if it all appeared to be a dream. And as Emmenberger made his incision, my God, Hans, his eyes also opened wide and his face became distorted; it was as if suddenly something devilish gleamed in his eyes, a kind of excessive pleasure in inflicting torture, or whatever you want to call it, a gleam so great that fear seized my every joint, if only for a second.
This description may be labeled a "filthy wealth of coincidence," and we can hope it is only that, even in the mid-twentieth century where such butchers were suddenly abundant. On the basis of the data from his two friends, Bärlach attempts to infiltrate Emmenberger's clinic as a terminally ill patient in need of special attention. Yet the attention he ultimately receives goes above and beyond any oath, Hippocratic or otherwise.
Some of us may think of Switzerland as a fecund and neutral land with persons of all ages and languages cycling around town on their red-and-white pillions (a quaint and lovely picture, and not wholly untrue). Dürrenmatt wisely refrains from destroying our paradise with hard-boiled noir based on cynicism, selfishness and skulduggery. What he presents, albeit shortly after a war in which his compatriots did not participate, is a soft haven, a reef amidst the endless storms of man's ambitions, a pocket of nature still susceptible to plots and craven silence. It is perhaps most telling that the novel does not harbor any pretense of ambiguity as to the guilty parties, nor really how matters will be settled. Suspense is replaced by the slow stream of the commissioner's suspicion, hence the title, and the elaborate details that comprise its development. On several occasions the very sick Bärlach's doubts are gently dismissed as the whims of someone well on his way to his final destination, but the text's narrator never allows us for a minute to share in that doubt. One hundred twenty pages on a criminal about whose guilt we haven't the slightest reservation? Perhaps that's why the only person in the novel who claims the devil doesn't exist can neither speak nor hear.