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  • Detective Story
  • Written by Imre Kertesz
    Translated by Tim Wilkinson
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780307279651
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Detective Story

Written by Imre KerteszAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Imre Kertesz
Translated by Tim WilkinsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tim Wilkinson

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From Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész comes this riveting novel about a torturer for the secret police of a Latin American regime who tells the haunting story of the father and son he ensnared and destroyed.

Now in prison, Antonio Martens is a torturer for a recently defunct dictatorship. He requests and is given writing materials in his cell, using them to narrate his involvement in the torture and assassination of a wealthy and prominent man and his son whose principled but passive opposition to the regime left them vulnerable to the secret police. Inside Martens's mind, we inhabit the rationalizing world of evil and see firsthand the inherent danger of inertia during times of crisis. A slim, explosive novel of justice railroaded by malevolence, Detective Story is a warning cry for our time.


Chapter 1

The manuscript that I am hereby making public was entrusted to my care by my client, Antonio R. Martens. As to who he is, you will learn that from him in due course. All that I shall say in advance is that, given his scholastic attainments, he evinced a surprising flair for writing, as indeed does anyone, in my experience, who for once in his life steels himself to face up to his fate.

I was appointed by the court as counsel for his defense. In the course of the criminal proceedings that were initiated against him, Martens did not try either to deny or to gloss over the charge against him of complicity in multiple murders. He did not fall into any of the behavioral categories with which the experience that I have gained to date in similar cases has made me familiar: either stubborn denial in respect to both material evidence and personal responsibility, or else that species of tearful remorse whose true motives are brutal unconcern for the victim and self-pity. On the contrary, Martens freely, readily, and uninhibitedly acknowledged his crimes as a matter of record—and with such stony indifference, it was as if he were giving an account of someone else’s actions, not his own, those of another Martens with whom he was no longer to be identified, even though he was prepared to accept the consequences of his deeds without batting an eyelid. I considered him cynical in the extreme.

One day he turned to me with the surprising request that I secure the authorization needed for him to write in his cell.

“What do you wish to write about?” I asked him.

“About how I have grasped the logic,” he replied.

“Now?” I was flabbergasted. “You mean you didn’t understand it during your actions?”

“No,” he replied. “Not during them. There was a time beforehand when I understood, and now I have understood again. During one’s actions, though, one forgets. But then”—he gave a dismissive wave—“that’s something people like you can’t understand.”

I understood better than he might have believed. All that surprised me was that I had not supposed that, with his being a lowly cog in a big machine and so having relinquished all powers of discernment and appraisal of a sovereign human person, that person might stir again in Martens and demand his rights. That is to say, that he would wish to speak out and make sense of his fate. In my experience, that is the rarest case of all. And in my view, everyone has the right to do so, and to do it in his own way. Even Martens. So I set about securing what he requested.

Do not be surprised by his way with words. In Martens’s eyes the world must have seemed like pulp fiction come true, with everything taking place in accordance with the monstrous certainty and dubious regularities of the unvarying dramatic form—or choreography, if you prefer—of a horror story. Let me add, not in his defense but merely for the sake of the truth, that this horror story was written not by Martens alone but by reality, too.

Martens finally handed the manuscript over to me. The text that is published here is authentic. I personally have not interfered with it in any way apart from making corrections where stylistic shortcomings absolutely demanded it. What he had to say, I have in all places left untouched.

Chapter 2

I wish to tell a story. A simple story. You may ultimately call it a sickening one, but that does not change its simpleness. I wish therefore to tell a simple and sickening story.

My name is Martens. Yes, the very same Antonio Rojas Martens who is presently arraigned before the judges of the new regime: the people’s judges, as they like to call themselves. You can read more than enough about me these days, as the tub-thumping tabloids have made sure that my name is known throughout Latin America and maybe even over in distant Europe as well.

I must hurry, as most likely my time is short. It concerns the Salinas case: Federigo and Enrique Salinas, father and son, proprietors of the chain of department stores that are dotted all over our country, whose deaths so astounded people. Though back then people were not so easily astounded. But then no one believed that Salinas, whose name is given to the Uprising, could be a traitor. The Colonel did indeed later have cause to regret that we made news of Salinas’s execution public; without a doubt it triggered a big moral backlash, far too big, and all quite unnecessarily. Still, if we had not issued a communiqué, then we would have been accused of seeking to mislead and of violating the law. Whatever we did, we were only ever going to get it wrong. The Colonel incidentally clearly saw that well in advance, and between you and me, so did I. But then what possible influence could a detective’s beliefs have had on events here?

Back then I was still just a new boy with the Corps. I had transferred to them from the regular police, not from the political lot—they had long ago been taken over—but from the criminal investigation branch. “Hey, Martens!” says my boss one day. “Do you fancy a transfer?” “Where to?” I ask, being a cop, after all, and not a mind reader. He gave a toss of his head. “Over there,” he says. “To the Corps.” I said nothing, neither yes nor no. It wasn’t bad in CID, but I was already starting to get a bit fed up with murderers, burglars, and whores. New winds were blowing, I had heard about one breakthrough and another, and there was said to be a future for anyone who made an effort. “The Corps is asking for men,” the boss continued. “I was wondering whom I could recommend. You, Martens, have talent, and you’ll be noticed sooner there.”

Well, if you put it like that, I was thinking much the same myself.

I completed the course; they brainwashed me. Not enough, though, not by a long chalk. All sorts of things were still left in there, much more than I would have any need for, but then they were in a tearing hurry. Everything was screamingly urgent. Order had to be created, the Consolidation had to be pushed for, the Homeland saved, upheaval polished off; and it all seemed to come down to us. “We’ll see about that,” people would say if something were giving them a headache. I’m damned if I learned anything, but the work interested me. And the pay even more.

I ended up in Diaz’s group (the Diaz for whom an APB has been put out, though to no purpose). There were three of us: Diaz, our boss (I can assure you all that he is never going to be found); Rodriguez (who has already been given a death sentence, just the once, though the scumbag deserves it a hundred times over); and myself, the new boy. Plus of course the auxiliary staff, cash, wide-ranging powers, and unlimited technology that your garden-variety flatfoot wouldn’t even dare read about lest he get too carried away.

The Salinas affair soon intruded itself. Too early, damnably early. At precisely the time when my headaches happened to be at their worst. So it intruded, but nothing could be done about that; I have not been able to escape it since. I have to speak out, therefore, in order to leave behind some testimony before I go . . . before I am sent on my way. But forget that; it is the last thing on my mind right now. I was always set to do this. Our line of work is hazardous; once you get started, the only way back is to carry on straight ahead, as Diaz was in the habit of saying (you know: the one for whom an APB has been put out, though to no purpose).

From the Hardcover edition.
Imre Kertesz

About Imre Kertesz

Imre Kertesz - Detective Story

Photo © Isolde Ohlbaum

Imre Kertész, who was born in 1929 and imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a youth, worked as a journalist and playwright before publishing Fatelessness, his first novel, in 1975. He is the author of Looking for a Clue, Detective Story, The Failure, The Union Jack, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and A Galley-Slave’s Journal. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. He lives in Budapest and Berlin.


“Appealingly meditative. . . . A compelling story, with a clever twist. . . . Kertész writes with characteristic lucidity, grace, and grim-gay humor.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A sophisticated and brilliant dissection of nihilistic power and its servants.”
Times Literary Supplement (London)

“A timeless, placeless parable. . . . A chilling procedural of moral degradation.”
New York Magazine

"Hopefulness in the face of tragedy makes Kertesz a joy to read, even when he describes our darkest horrors."
The Believer

"Kertesz spins a deeply self-conscious web of psychological drama."
The New York Sun

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