Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday Finds: “The Pledge”

Another in our growing line of vintage book covers we love.

The Pledge, by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (Signet, 1960).
Illustration by Sanford Kossin.

Originally published in 1958, The Pledge--or using its German title, Das Versprechen--is a “spellbinding” crime-fiction novella (only 176 pages long in one easily available paperback edition) by Swiss author and dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990). As a 2006 write-up in The Guardian explains, Dürrenmatt “was a prolific writer of detective novels with a low regard for detective fiction. ‘You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy.” The Pledge was designed to express his criticism of the genre, and as a result carries the subtitle Requiem for the Detective Novel (or in German, Requiem auf den Kriminalroman). The University of Chicago Press Web site offers this brief plot synopsis:
Set in a small town in Switzerland, The Pledge centers around the murder of a young girl and the detective who promises the victim’s mother he will find the perpetrator. After deciding the wrong man has been arrested for the crime, the detective lays a trap for the real killer--with all the patience of a master fisherman. But cruel turns of plot conspire to make him pay dearly for his pledge.
Guardian critic Alfred Hickling says this of The Pledge:
Dürrenmatt’s tale doesn’t so much alter the rules as sweep all the figures to the floor. Three young girls, each with blonde braids and red dresses, are found dismembered in the woods. A pattern seems to emerge, yet the attempt to catch the killer develops into a fruitless obsession which drives the head of the investigation insane. Dürrenmatt incorporates fairy-tale archetypes to distort the typical conventions of a psychological thriller--when little girls in red dresses skip off into the woods, should the investigation team focus their enquiries on a big, bad wolf? Not a book for anyone who likes a tidy conclusion, but as Dürrenmatt says: “The only way to avoid getting crushed by absurdity, is to humbly include the absurd in our calculations.”
If all of this reminds you of a Jack Nicholson film, there’s good reason. He starred in a 2001 movie based quite loosely on Dürrenmatt’s story, shot largely in British Columbia, Canada, and directed by Sean Penn. An earlier cinematic version of Dürrenmatt’s suspense tale, the 1958 Spanish-Swiss-German motion picture It Happened in Broad Daylight, actually provided the jumping-off point for The Pledge. Unhappy with that movie’s resolution, the author decided to write the novella from his original screenplay.

The particular edition of The Pledge shown above features a painting by Sanford “Sandy” Kossin. Born in Los Angeles in 1926, and apparently still living in New York City, Kossin is often mentioned in relation to his “Bay of Pigs” illustration, which made the cover of Life magazine’s May 10, 1963, issue. According to this online biography, “After World War II, Kossin went to [the] Jepson Art Institute in California to study drawing and design before he moved to New York City.” He taught at both Manhattan’s Parsons School of Design and the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and contributed his considerable talents as an illustrator to science-fiction magazines and publications for children. Kossin created artwork (sometimes with a humorous edge) for Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. In addition, he created book covers and movie posters. A selection of Kossin’s work can be enjoyed here.

I wasn’t aware of Kossin’s artistry until recently, but you can bet that I’ll be dipping further into his extensive portfolio soon.

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