The promise (Dürrenmatt)

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Cover of the first edition

The Promise (1958) is a crime novel by the Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt , which arose from his script for the film It happened in broad daylight . Dürrenmatt was satisfied with the film and its end, but not enthusiastic about it; nor did the film title come from him; his proposals had been rejected. However, he wanted to think the story further beyond its educational function: while the focus in the film was on the crime, in the narrative it is now on the investigator. "A particular case became the case of the detective, a criticism of one of the most typical characters of the nineteenth century."

For this reason, based on his own film script, he wrote the novel The Promise, which he referred to in the subtitle as a requiem for the detective novel , since in and with it the current rules of a crime novel are put up for discussion. While the humanly committed commissioner Matthäi succeeds in his investigations in the film, he ultimately fails in the novel due to a coincidence.


The detective novel is divided into a frame narrative and an internal narrative .

Frame narration (beginning)

The first-person narrator , author of detective novels, gives a lecture in Chur about his work. He then meets the former head of the Zurich Cantonal Police , Dr. H., who criticizes the lecture given and his work, because «chance plays no role in your novels […]; the truth has always been thrown away by you writers for the dramaturgical rules ». That all criminals find their punishment is a state-preserving lie: "Reality can only be partially dealt with with logic."
The next day, Dr. H. took the crime author to Zurich in his car. On their trip they stop at a gas station, in front of which an old man who smells of schnapps sits, "stupid, extinguished". Dr. H. then tells the author his story during the onward journey and then in the repeatedly mentioned Kronenhalle ; it is about the former commissioner Matthäi, once his "most capable man".

Internal narration

Shortly before Commissioner Matthäi, who is delegated by the Confederation to Amman in Jordan , is due to leave, he receives a phone call from the Gunten peddler who found a dead girl in the forest in the (fictional) Zurich Mägendorf. It's Gritli Moser, she was murdered with a razor.

When Matthäi brings the sad news to his parents, he promises the desperate mother, at her insistence , that he will catch the murderer. The Mägendorf people are meanwhile convinced that the peddler is the murderer, Matthäi can barely save the tense situation and bring the peddler into police custody by promising the farmers that if they present enough evidence of Gunten's guilt here and now, they should talk about him Peddlers can dispose of. Thereupon the Mägendorfer get entangled in obvious contradictions and let the police leave with the peddler. The prosecutor told Matthäi: "I hope you never make a promise that you have to keep."

When visiting the village school, the chorale So take my hands is being rehearsed for Gritli's funeral. Gritli's friend Ursula reports that Gritli was given little hedgehogs by a giant. The teacher describes Gritli as a very imaginative child.

In the meantime, von Gunten, with a criminal record for moral offenses, remarks that nobody believes in his innocence anymore. Even before Gritli Moser there were two murders of children committed in the same way on similar-looking girls, in the canton of St. Gallen and in the canton of Schwyz . All the evidence speaks against him. Von Gunten is questioned by two police officers in a tough 20-hour long-term interrogation (Dr. H .: "That was of course not allowed, but we at the police cannot always follow the regulations"). When the peddler confesses to the murders and hangs himself in the cell that night, the case is considered closed; Matthai is supposed to leave for Jordan the next day.

On the way to the airport, Matthäi lets drive via Mägendorf, where the funeral procession for Gritli Moser is being held. Ms. Moser thanks Matthäi for keeping his promise. At the airport, however, Matthäi sees children waving and laughing, school classes visiting the airport, and he turns around before he's on the plane. Dr. For political and diplomatic reasons, H. cannot hire him again. Matthäi, who does not believe in the guilt of the dead peddler, has to continue investigating the case privately.

In the Mägendorf schoolhouse, Matthäi, who is now smoking and drinking, fetches a drawing by Gritli Moser on which a little girl is receiving a hedgehog from a giant; further on it is a car, probably of American design, and a strange animal with horns. Matthäi brings the psychiatrist who works with the police - to whom Dr. H. sent - to interpret the drawing in the sense of Matthäi's hypothesis that Gritli had drawn her murderer a week before the crime. Since there was no rape either, it was not a sexual murder, but an act of revenge against women, the perpetrator was probably quite primitive. The animal with the horns and the hedgehog remain a mystery. The psychiatrist speaks to Matthäi of the madness as a method: "You are trying something impossible."

Matthäi takes over a petrol station on the road from Chur to Zurich, with him as housekeeper the "city-famous lady" is Heller. Matthäi had tried unsuccessfully to adopt a girl from an orphanage. The alerted Dr. H. seeks Matthai to get an explanation. Matthäi says he's fishing - criminal work. Is the importance of hedgehogs in the child's drawing him still unclear, but the pictured animal if it were the Capricorn of Grisons license plate of the offender. He had been made aware by fishing children that a predator like trout could only be caught if the location and the bait were right; then all you need is patience. Dr. H. realizes that Heller's daughter, Annemarie, Matthäi is used as bait, and that the gas station is the right place: At that time there was only one road leading from Graubünden to Zurich, if the perpetrator would drive to Zurich again at some point, then he inevitably had to drive past this gas station. “The man impressed me, his method was unusual, had something grandiose about it. I suddenly admired him [...]; Nevertheless, I thought his company was hopeless, the risk too great, the chances of profit too small. "

'So he waited. Relentless, persistent, passionate. " Many months pass, Matthäi binds the girl to himself with stories and fairy tales and keeps her in the horizon of the street.

Suddenly Annemarie stays out of school, he finds her in a clearing with a pile of rubbish. You are waiting for a magician. Matthäi initially pays no attention to the statement because of the fairy tales and the imagination of the little ones. The next day, Annemarie comes back from school earlier - but in fact she was free (Heller: teachers' conference or something). Matthäi takes in the weather. Annemarie has been absent from school quite often lately without excuse. He picks up Annemarie, who has chocolate-smeared hands and lies to him. She has chocolate truffles with her - the little hedgehogs from Gritli Moser's drawing - but gives him no honest information about their origin. Matthäi is happy about it, he allows her to see the magician again.

The team of Dr. H. is immediately convinced: "We were no longer really concerned with the child and no longer with the murderer, we were concerned with Matthai, the man had to be right, get to his goal, otherwise a disaster would happen; we all felt it […]. ». Annemarie is under observation, she is obviously waiting for someone, sits next to the garbage dump in the forest and sings the song Maria sat on a stone continuously . After a week, the prosecutor loses patience and control over himself. He yells at the girl who she's waiting for. Since Annemarie doesn't answer, the exasperated men begin to hit her (Dr. H .: “'We are animals, we are animals', I gasped”). At that moment Annemary's mother appears. The cops leave. But Matthäi doesn't give up and comes to terms with his housekeeper. You and Annemarie stay at the gas station, Matthäi continues to wait. The years go by without any more murders.

Frame narration (conclusion)

Dr. H .: "So everything went its way into fatality, and you saw the result for yourself on our trip." The truth is just not like in a detective novel or in a film (allusions to It happened in broad daylight ). The real punch line, the "most banal of all possible 'solutions" "is shabby, makes Matthäi a genius for the time being, but then reduces the whole thing to absurdity:" Nothing is more cruel than a genius who stumbles over something idiotic. "

One day, Dr. H. called by a pastor to the canton hospital to an old, dying woman. Shortly before the last unction, she gave a complicated report of her second marriage to her former caretaker and gardener "Albertchen" Schrott , who was more than 30 years her junior . The woman tells in a "calm, gentle voice", "and it really was as if she were telling two children a fairy tale in which the evil and the absurd also happen as something as wonderful as the good [...]."

Albert fell more and more silent, one day he came home very late and washed bloody clothes and his razor. The next morning he confessed to her the murder of a girl in St. Gallen, which she discovered in the newspaper, and later the same thing with the girl in Schwyz - it was always a voice from heaven that ordered him to do the deeds. Frau Schrott told him he couldn't do that anymore.

Then he committed the third murder of Gritli Moser: "" It was a girl in the canton of Zurich, also with a red skirt and yellow plaits, unable to believe how carelessly mothers dress their children. "" She still banned Albert killing a girl (it was Annemarie Heller at Matthäi's gas station). Albertchen then got very angry and drove off, but died in a truck accident on the way to the act.

Dr. H. then goes to Chur with his family, he stops at Matthäi and tells him what has happened, but he ignores him. In the café his wife orders truffles, which Dr. H. does not eat.

At the end of his story, Dr. H. to the first-person narrator in the Kronenhalle restaurant: “And now, sir, you can do whatever you want with this story. Emma, ​​the bill. "


Matthäi is also referred to by his colleagues as " Matthäi am Last ", an allusion to Matthias (apostle) , who, according to the Acts of the Apostles, was called as the last of the twelve after the death of Judas . "I wait, I wait, it will come, it will come", the first words he speaks in the novel allude to this name.

At the time the novel was written, "Matthew on the Last" was a common phrase and was synonymous with "at the end" (the last word of the Gospel of Matthew in the Luther translation is "end"). From the point of view of colleagues and from Dürrenmatt's point of view, Matthäi is "finished".

Dürrenmatt's fondness for linguistic humor is evident in the naming of the murderer "scrap". He passed the name on to his wife, the daughter of a Zurich dignitary.

The song Mariechen sat on a stone as well as the fields of the color red and the deciduous forest are seen as indications of child abuse, which the novel itself does not openly reflect.


In 1967, ten years after the detective novel was published and on the day of an award ceremony for his friend Varlin ( Willy Guggenheim ), Dürrenmatt interfered in the Zurich literary controversy sparked by Emil Staiger . In particular, Günter Waldmann's promise is criticized as a distorted picture of reality, "the introduction of chance as a decisive authority is presented as a falsified ideal image [...]". According to Wolfgang Pasche, Dürrenmatt wants to show that the detective story's belief in a rationally ordered world is anachronistic today.

Hellmuth Karasek saw in The Promise an excellent novel, which shows a very realistic criminal case and which plays neither as a livelihood nor with a Last Judgment, nor goes to the school of Friedrich Glauser , like many of the other crime novels by Dürrenmatt. In particular, he finds the perpetrator's psychogram to be successful and interesting. According to Ulrich Greiner , it can be seen as a treatise , but with a strong linguistic power.

Book editions


Reclam's Krimi-Lexikon judges Dürrenmatt: “His crime novels follow the classic scheme, but with their irony, cynicism and socio-critical or philosophical approaches, they go far beyond what is usual in the genre.” Reclam's crime novelist points to a forerunner: “He had the plot probably found in the Simenon novel Maigret tend un piège (1955),published a few years earlier. ”In her investigation of both novels, Irene Beissmann names a similarity between perpetrator and motive, the pathological relationship to women, as well as the central plot element, the trap, the the inspector confronts the murderer and lays out a "bait". Both novels are preceded by a conversation between the inspector and the head of a mental hospital in which the perpetrator is viewed as a victim.


Film adaptations



  • Elisabeth Brock-Sulzer: Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Stations of his work. Diogenes, Zurich 1986, ISBN 3-257-21388-3 .
  • Bernd Matzkowski: Explanations on Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The promise. Bange, Hollfeld 2012, ISBN 978-3-8044-1953-7 .
  • Oliver Möbert: Intertextuality and variation in the work of Friedrich Dürrenmatt: On the textual genesis of the detective novel “The Promise” (1957/58) with special consideration of the feature film “It happened am hellichten Tag” (CH / D / E, 1958). Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, May 2011. ISBN 3-6316-1123-4 .
  • Wolfgang Pasche: Interpretation aids. Friedrich Dürrenmatt's crime novels. Klett, Stuttgart 1997, ISBN 3-12-922609-5 .
  • Florian Schwarz: The novel “The Promise” by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and the films “It happened am hellichten Tag” (1958) and “The Pledge” (2001). LIT, Münster 2006, ISBN 3-8258-9299-9 .

Web links


  1. Play Dürrenmatt. Zurich 1996, p. 137, ISBN 3-257-06095-5 .
  2. ^ Afterword by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
  3. Dürrenmatt's fictional Mägendorf is not to be confused with the real Mägenwil. This is also near Zurich, but in the canton of Aargau and also not on the Chur – Zurich route.
  4. Wolfgang Pasche: Interpretation aids. Friedrich Dürrenmatt's crime novels. The promise. Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart 1997, p. 168.
  5. Cf. “Matthaei is last with someone” on redensarten.index. Retrieved January 4, 2021.
  6. Wolfgang Pasche: Interpretation aids. Friedrich Dürrenmatt's crime novels. The promise. Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart 1997, p. 180.
  7. Wolfgang Pasche: Interpretation aids. Friedrich Dürrenmatt's crime novels. The promise. Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart 1997, p. 177.
  8. Wolfgang Pasche: Interpretation aids. Friedrich Dürrenmatt's crime novels. The promise. Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart 1997, pp. 164–166.
  9. Analyst: Unless everything just arises from the girl's phantasy, it must be a large, massive figure, a more or less feeble-minded man who kills little girls because he does not dare to approach adult women. His motive is presumably sexual and social frustration - “perhaps the man was oppressed or exploited by his wife. Maybe his wife was rich and he was poor. Perhaps she occupied a higher position than he »(p. 99). Everything indicates that he will strike again at ever shorter intervals.
  10. ^ The Literary Quartet: About Friedrich Dürrenmatt (July 18, 1991).
  11. ^ The Literary Quartet: About Friedrich Dürrenmatt (July 18, 1991).
  12. Klaus-Peter Walter (Ed.): Reclams Krimi-Lexikon . Authors and works. Philipp Reclam Jun., Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-150-10509-9 , p. 110.
  13. ^ Armin Arnold, Josef Schmidt (Ed.): Reclams Kriminalromanführer. Reclam, Stuttgart 1978, ISBN 3-15-010279-0 , p. 147.
  14. Irene Beissmann: From Maigret to Bärlach. A comparative study of crime novels by Georges Simenon and Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Master's thesis at McGill University Montreal 1973, p. 68, p. 109–110 (PDF; 5.4 MB).