Covers with Cats
I can go ahead and admit that I have a problem. I collect kitty-cat knickknacks. Mugs. Figurines. Ugly porcelain cats. Ugly ceramic cat-shaped kettles from some by-gone unidentifiable age. Cat cookie jars.
That being said, when I saw the cover of this edition of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman (Der Richter und sein Henker), I decided on purchasing it. The bright green background holds the image of a large black cat chasing a mouse, and is stark, nearly conjuring the feeling of neon light and shadow. The cover says ‘literary crime novel’ if any cover indeed manages to. The fact that it included a cat was a plus too.
I thought that even if I hated the book then at least I would have this very cool cover that I would greatly enjoy looking at on my shelf. Thankfully, I did very much like this book and the image on the cover was a perfect representation of the story held in the novel.
A Game of Cat and Mouse
The Judge and His Hangman is a literary crime novel about a police inspector who is trying to solve the murder of a lieutenant. He was hoping that lieutenant would help to bring down a man that the inspector knows is a murderer. How does he know?
On a night long ago, the police inspector – Barlach – and the murderer – going by the name of Gastmann at the time of the novel – make a bet in a bar. Barlach states that it isn’t possible to get away with a crime while Gastmann maintains that it is. Gastmann goes on to prove this by murdering a man in front of Barlach and escaping any consequences.
Now another murder has occurred and Barlach must untangle the threads of the crime and try to do what he’s been attempting to do for years. Bring Gastmann to justice.
I won’t reveal the ending, but suffice it to say, Dürrenmatt displays incredible technique with the pacing of the novel and adding to the complexity of the crime plot by layering it with Gastmann and Barlach’s history and conflict. Even if you don’t necessarily like crime novels, I would say that this work is worth the read just for the pacing technique alone as well as the sharp, sparse, incisive stylistic touches.
The Line Between
Genre fiction and literary fiction have a line between them that often blurs. I read primarily literary fiction, but I do keep an open mind and to read a large variety of work. When I do read genre fiction, I often read novels that tend more towards the literary.
That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with just reading genre work. My mother nearly exclusively reads mysteries. My spouse has a soft spot for high fantasy fiction and science fiction. One of the great things about books is that they don’t need to stay within the bounds of genre, structure, or form, but can do something completely different and completely new. Such is the stuff that gave birth to the literary movements that shaped the world including Modernism, Romanticism, Realism, and many other movements.
The Drawbacks of Short Fiction
The Judge and His Hangman is only 127 pages long — which is more of a novella by modern standards. A piece of fiction that is this short has no room for any lack of tightness in the structure and Dürrenmatt accomplishes this goal admirably. The pace and the starkness work wonderfully with the few words allotted to tell the story to the reader.
However, what usually happens, even with the best written short piece, is that the reader wants more. Personally, I would have liked a bit more material about the protagonist and the antagonist. But perhaps more detail about their conflict over the years or about them in general would have taken away from the feeling of driving force throughout the novel. It’s a delicate balancing act and, so far, I haven’t found a novel that performs it perfectly — and I have a feeling that novel doesn’t actually exist. If it’s written well I will always want more pages out of a short book, even if I can acknowledge that the author knew when to quit.
Lower word counts can lead to something else I very much enjoy. That is lots of negative space on the printed page. I hate it when the text feels squashed. I want it to have room to breathe and to enjoy the sensation of the progress inherent in turning pages.
The Judge and His Hangman had all of these advantages. Lots of space, lots of breathing room, lots of rapidly turned pages. If I had chosen to, I could have finished the book in an afternoon or in the quiet hours just before going to bed.
I have a lot of books, and I receive a lot of them as gifts from my spouse. Christmas, birthdays, every holiday that involves gift giving, she spoils me with books, books, and more books.
More special than the books themselves, is the fact that she inscribes them in delicate pencil, just for me. So every time I read, I get to flip to the title page and see her messages. Some are funny (like the one in this post), some are touching, some have to do with the book, some have absolutely nothing to do with the book.
All of them have her love. I feel that love keeping me safe and warm. Always.