The Execution of Justice: Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel, The Execution of Justice opens with our drunk narrator, lawyer Felix Spät offering the reader an explanation of past “events that led to the acquittal of  a murderer and to the death of an innocent man.” He says he needs to “think through the steps I was lured into taking, the measures I took, the possibilities left undone.” It soon becomes clear he’s questioning the justice system and he’s preparing for a “just murder.”


Back in time to what seems an open-and-shut murder case. Retired from both law and politics, Dr Isaak Kohler is in a taxi accompanying a British minister to the airport. He asks the chauffeur to make a sidetrip to a restaurant. Leaving the dozing politician in the taxi, Kohler walks into the restaurant and without saying a word, shoots Professor Adolf Winter. Then with no evidence of panic, he walks back outside, gets into the taxi and leaves. Later, with the police on the hunt for a presumed fugitive from justice, Kohler rather coolly attends a concert.

Naturally since there are dozens of witnesses, it seem as though there’s no doubt that Kohler is the killer (that or he has a twin). At first it seems that the plot will explore not ‘who-did-it’ but why?

Kohler is tried and convicted. Thriving in prison and claiming his life has improved considerably, Kohler sends for down-on-luck lawyer Felix Spät and hires him to investigate the murder “under the presumption” that Kohler was  “not the murderer.”

“I want you to reinvestigate my case.”

I flinched.

“Meaning you want me to appeal it, Herr Kohler?”

He shook his head. “If I were to pursue an appeal, that would necessarily imply that there is something wrong with my sentence, but there is nothing wrong with it. My life is a closed case, it’s been led away. I know that the warden sometimes thinks I’m a fraud and you, Spät, probably think so too. That’s understandable. But I am neither a saint nor a devil, I’m simply a  man who’s discovered you don’t need anything more to live than a cell, hardly more than you need to die, a bed will do for that.”

Kohler also employs a retired professor, Knulpe, to research “the consequences of murder.” He adds, “the idea is to plumb the depths of reality, to measure exactly what effects one deed has.” Given the plot (and the title) ‘Justice’ is under examination here. It’s really a clever title which could mean a) the death of Justice or b) the implementation of Justice. Kohler tells Felix to create an alternate scenario, an alternate reality to the crime if you will, and of course while defense lawyers often assume that tactic, in this case, Felix’s relationship with his client is fraught with moral dilemmas. Kohler isn’t saying he didn’t do it.

“You are to create a fiction, nothing more.”

“But you are, in point of fact, the murderer, and that makes you fiction quite meaningless,” I declared. 

“That’s the only thing that gives it meaning, Kohler answered. “You’re not supposed to investigate reality at all–our good old Knulpe is doing that–but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality.”

Yes Kohler is a smooth talker….

With Kohler playing mind games, Felix takes the job and lives to regret it.  In spite of this somewhat convoluted approach to the case (or perhaps even because of it) the plot’s premise has allure. Unfortunately, in its execution, there’s that word again, this rather metaphysical crime novel is a chore to read. After finishing it, I read that this book was started in 1957 but was not completed until 1985. Perhaps this explains the listless plot which could have been good if given some different treatment.

Review copy

Translated by John E. Woods.


Filed under Dürrenmatt Friedrich, Fiction

8 responses to “The Execution of Justice: Friedrich Dürrenmatt

  1. Oh, that’s a pity. I’ve enjoyed another couple of novellas by this writer – The Judge and his Hangman, and Suspicion. Existentialism can work well in this kind of story, but it’s not always easy to pull off effectively.

  2. How disappointing. I’ve read the same ones Jacqui mentions but not this one. Sounds like it’s more a roman à thèse than a real crime novel.

  3. I can see how, if you put a book aside for that many years, you’d lose the momentum. Plus you, the author, have changed.

  4. Pity! – I was glad to see the name, as I’d read the two mentioned by Jacqui and Caroline, and The Pledge – all excellent.

    31 years between starting and finishing!

  5. I was hopeful to find a title for German lit month but given your conclusion, I’ll pass. I know how measured you are in your review and the word “chore” is rarely used, so it must have been something.
    Thanks for taking one for the team 🙂

    I think I’m going to read Beton. Or write about Bernhard’s play Der Theatermacher. I love his mean sense of humor.

  6. Is there a German Lit month? If so GREAT. I didn’t know but I’ve been swamped lately and haven’t been able to keep up.

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