Saturday, November 17, 2012

I'm glad I didn't read . . .

. . . THE QUARRY by Friedrich Durrenmatt before I wrote my own short story, 'Vanishing Act'(published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine last year). I got THE QUARRY out of the London Library after Mark Lawson talked about Durrenmatt recently in one of series of programmes about European crime fiction on Radio 4. And as I read the opening pages it began to seem rather familiar. In my short story a murder takes place in a hospice and the mystery is solved by someone who is himself dying. Durrenmatt's novel, published in 1962, opens with his terminally ill protagonist, Inspector Barlach, in hospital. The doctor who is treating him thinks he identifies from an old photo a German concentration camp doctor who committed atrocities during the second world war and later committed suicide. Barlach's friend suspects that actually the man survived and is running a clinic in Zurich. Determined to bring the man to justice Barlach arranges to have himself transferred to the clinic and so begins a game of cat and mouse. I'm not seriously comparing myself with this extraordinary writer and these are very different stories. And yet the similarities (both involve an old photograph) might have been enough to take the shine off my own idea if I'd known about THE QUARRY. Of course many ideas and motifs recur in crime fiction - in fiction generally - and it doesn't much matter as long as the writer has a new and arresting take on their subject. Still I might have been deterred from writing a story that I'm proud of it if I'd read THE QUARRY first, so I'm glad I didn't. Ending as it does with a deus ex machina, THE QUARRY is not perhaps a total successful as a crime novel, but that isn't really the point. In its exploration nihilism, guilt, and retribution, it's in a class of its own. PS. 'Vanishing Act' will be reprinted in the MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME early next year.

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