Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Judge and His Hangman


Literary Architecture

Matteo Pericoli is the founder of the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, an interdisciplinary project that looks at fiction through the lens of architecture, designing and building stories as architectural projects. In this series, he shares some of his designs and what they reveal about the stories they’re modeled on.


Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s mystery novel The Judge and His Hangman revolves around a sudden nighttime encounter between chief detective Bärlach, an inspector with the Bern police, and his eternal rival, Gastmann.

During the encounter, we learn that the two men had met forty years earlier at a dive bar in the Bosporus where, inebriated, they made a bet that will bind them for the rest of their lives. Bärlach maintained that committing a crime is an “act of stupidity”: human imperfection, the unpredictable actions of others, and the inability of taking chance into account are the reasons why most crimes are inevitably solved. His rival, “more for the sake of argument than out of conviction,” instead maintained that it was exactly because of “the entanglement of human relationships” that he could commit unsolvable crimes, crimes that Bärlach would never be able to prove. From that day on, the detective vowed to spend his life trying to nail his rival.

Forty years later, we’re at a showdown. With both the bet and the life of the now-terminally-ill Bärlach at stake, even we readers feel that we can put together the pieces—both of Gastmann’s umpteenth crime and of what seems to be the classic structure of a great mystery novel. Along with the inspector, we think we’ve identified the murderer by piecing several clues together. The architecture’s finishing touch is within reach. All we have to do is sit back and watch how Dürrenmatt—through Bärlach—will solve the mystery that’s been constructed thus far.


The building is clean and compact. We see its solids and voids: elements of a structure that, at first glance, is whole and homogeneous. Its apparent uniformity all but hides the construction’s profound dualism. The space we are about to enter is not, in fact, that of the novel’s structure: its imposing shapes, which oppose and mirror each other, which chase and complete each other, are the two protagonists bound together by the bet.

As in the novel—with its surprise ending that flips everything upside down, transforming the structure we had taken for granted into a profound moral and existential dilemma—in the building, what seemed to obscure now illuminates, what once concealed now is hidden, what seemed to give support is now nothing but a weight to bear and understand.

How could Bärlach, of all people, end up giving in to Gastmann’s diabolical provocation and, just so he can catch him, rely precisely on “human imperfection” to achieve his goal? The void at the center of the building, around which the two volumes torment each other, that nothingness at the building’s core, could be hiding the answer.

In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.