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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Detective Story

Kertész Imre

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Detective Story

Title: Detective Story
Author: Kertész Imre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Detective Story - US
Detective Story - UK
Detective Story - Canada
Detective Story - India
Roman policier - France
Detektivgeschichte - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Detektívtörténet
  • Translated by Tim Wilkinson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid novella of totalitarianism and the abuse of power

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 12/1/2008 Ben Naparstek
Forward . 16/4/2008 Joshua Cohen
The Guardian . 17/1/2009 James Smart
The LA Times . 20/1/2008 Richard Rayner
The Nation . 9/6/2008 Ruth Scurr
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 16/11/2004 Andreas Breitenstein
New Statesman . 17/1/2008 Charlotte Stretch
The NY Sun . 23/1/2008 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/2/2008 Nathaniel Rich
The Observer . 6/1/2008 Ian Thomson
The Scotsman . 15/12/2007 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 5/2/2008 Carole Angier
Sunday Times . 27/1/2008 David Horspool
The Telegraph . 16/2/2008 Jake Kerridge
TLS . 4/1/2008 Joseph Farrell
Die Zeit . 11/11/2004 Iris Radisch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Detective Story continues Kertesz’s exploration of the existential plight of the individual under tyranny’s jackboot. It is a masterful addition to his other translated novels. As they return to similar territory with radically different approaches, they create an oeuvre that is more than the sum of its parts." - Ben Naparstek, Financial Times

  • "This gracile, grim novel is what Chesterton’s best reader, Jorge Luis Borges, would have written had he had the conviction to write about the South American dictatorships by which he was oppressed. But to reveal any more about the nature of Kertész’s denouement would be to detract from the boot in the gut that begins its kick on page 98." - Joshua Cohen, Forward

  • "Flashes of ordinary life mix with descriptions of torture and surveillance in this dreadful, gripping farce, in which the state's blank terror taints everything it touches." - James Smart, The Guardian

  • "(T)he diary and the detective's obsession with it become the vehicles through which Kertesz explores the twisted relationship between victim and perpetrator. (...) Tragedy follows, with irony and -- the word Kertesz keeps coming back to -- logic. (...) This short, spare book, a fable about what governments do and the guilt a man tries to stop feeling, can be read in a couple of hours; its bleak, despairing effect will haunt for much longer." - Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times

  • "From book, to statuette, to torture chamber: this is the infernal sequence that Detective Story exposes. Kertész is scrupulously economical. The reader is never taken into the "operating theater"; emotive details are used extremely sparingly; it is the underlying logic of wrongdoing that preoccupies Kertész. (...) Detective Story is a superb exploration of the banality of evil, one that recalls and resonates with Hannah Arendt's." - Ruth Scurr, The Nation

  • "It is this delicately evoked moodiness that renders the book a memorable and thought-provoking work, even if it is, in the end, a fundamentally unsatisfying one." - Charlotte Stretch, New Statesman

  • "Mr. Kertész lets us read between the lines of Martens's story. The dictator himself, "the Colonel," appears to be a totally fungible Latin American warlord. Diaz, the mastermind of intelligence, only seems masterful if you mistake his dumbfoundedness for silent cunning, as Martens does. Indeed, if read carefully, Detective Story becomes just that -- a generic attempt at a detective story, worked up by a disappointed pawn of state who must sense, deep down, how paltry his historical role has been." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "Although Detective Story contains noirish elements -- paranoia, subterfuge and, most of all, a gloomy sense of impending, implacable doom -- the intentional murkiness of the plot thwarts any expectations of a conventional whodunit. (...) Unfortunately, in order to get to Kertesz’s nuanced exploration of his theme one must overlook a surprising array of tonal miscues and awkward formulations, for which the translator, Tim Wilkinson, surely does not deserve all the blame." - Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Much of the book reads like a treatise on how to run a totalitarian state. (...) Ultimately, this slender novel reads like a preliminary sketch, not the Orwellian fable the author had perhaps intended. Something is lacking and that, perhaps, is a sense of plausibility. Martens's motives for dispensing such horrific violence remain obscure: clearly Kertesz likes the mystery of the unresolved. Translator Tim Wilkinson has rendered the sparse Hungarian into smooth English. It remains a bleak essay on the corrupting tendency of power." - Ian Thomson, The Observer

  • "The narrative is neat, lucid, written with admirable economy, all too believable." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "Into these few characters, as into his 113 pages, Kertész packs the whole range of victims and perpetrators. Or rather, interestingly, not quite the whole range. (...) Is Kertész suggesting that many perpetrators are, like Martens, unwilling executioners? I think he is. And I think he is exploring the possibility that anyone could become such an executioner, even himself -- step by apparently ordinary step, as the victims became victims in Fatelessness." - Carole Angier, The Spectator

  • "When Detective Story was first published, Pinochet was in charge in Chile and the military junta ruled Argentina. But Kertesz's observations on the workings and psychology of "those in power", especially when convinced of a great threat to their security, are not of purely historical interest. They warn us that human nature doesn’t change, only circumstances do." - David Horspool, Sunday Times

  • "It need hardly be said that the passage of 30 years has not reduced the relevance of this message. He is perhaps over-optimistic, though, when he implies that such regimes speedily bring about their own destruction. A timely moral fable, then, but a gripping story too. With impressive economy, Kertész creates enough rounded characters -- such as the professional torturer Rodriguez or the leech-like sybarite Ramón -- to populate a novel five times as long." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph

  • "The title may mislead, since Detective Story is not a whodunit but a sophisticated and brilliant dissection of nihilistic power and its servants, as well as a poignant depiction of the plights of individuals caught up in the mechanism of a barbaric state." - Joseph Farrell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ob diese moralische Parabel, deren südamerikanische Maskerade wir vermutlich der ungarischen Zensur der siebziger Jahre verdanken, wirklich, wie verheißen, eine Detektivgeschichte abgibt, sei dahingestellt. Ursprünglich entstanden, um die ungarische Erstausgabe des Spurensuchers voluminöser zu gestalten, liest sich diese Erzählung heute wie ein konzentriertes Lehrstück über die Selbstverständlichkeit und Alltäglichkeit des Amoralismus." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

Note: This review is based on the German translation (by Angelika and Peter Máté), Detektivgeschichte; all quotes and references are our translation of the German, not the original.

       Kertész Imre's Detektívtörténet is set in Latin America, but it is (sadly) universal, its description of the abuses of power under a totalitarian regime ringing as true in Kertész's own Eastern Europe at the time, and it could just as easily have been set in Africa or Asia as well.
       The bulk of the story is narrated by Antonio Rojaz Martens, though the first short chapter is an introductory one setting the stage, Martens' defense attorney explaining how the manuscript that makes up the rest of the book came into being. Martens' himself then begins:

I want to tell a story. An ordinary story. You might also call it monstrous. But that doesn't change anything about its ordinariness.
       The story he relates dates from the time when Martens was a relatively new member of the 'Corps', to which he transferred from the police. The Corps is the local state security force, in charge of seeing to order, protecting the state, and ending resistance to the state (by any means necessary) -- the equivalent of the KGB, the Stasi, the SS, and similar organisations. He works in a group under Diaz, and the case he focusses on is that of Federigo and Enrique Salinas.
       The reader is made aware of some of the outcomes from the beginning: that both father and son Salinas are dead, that Diaz is a fugitive, that Martens is on trial. But Martens also goes back to the beginning and recounts how it all came to this.
       Enrique Salinas is a figure on the radar of the Corps from the first -- but no more so than any long-haired university-age citizen. Even when he hadn't done anything, Martens knows:
Our files already made clear that sooner or later Enrique would get up to something. His destiny had already been decided by us. Only he had not yet decided.
       Born in a well-to-do business family, Enrique isn't sure of what to do with himself, a somewhat aimless youth who, in these troubled times, might be tempted by subversive and revolutionary actors. And so, twenty-two years old and with his longish hair, he's a suspect figure to the authorities even before there is anything to really suspect him of.
       The family is doing well in the troubled country, and Enrique isn't a revolutionary at heart, but a small incident brings him to the attention of the Corps, and they choose to see him as a person of interest. He does know it's his name that keeps him relatively safe at an early encounter with the authorities, but soon enough that too is meaningless. Arbitrary escalation, once the Corps has set its sights on him, is inevitable. And the outcome can only be disaster.
       Kertész describes the power-hunger and paranoia of the authorities -- who, in addition, have what appears to be unfettered power to detain and torture -- very well. In the Salinas case it spirals easily and ridiculously out of control. Kertész offers a nice twist of what gets Enrique in real trouble (and what brings about his well-meaning father's fall as well), leading to their deaths. Both are innocents, driven by the state to act in a way that makes it possible to claim a certain sort of guilt on their part, but not a real one: it's all shadow-games and fraud.
       A solid little tale that once again finds greater resonance, as these are times (2006) when an American president claims the right to detain suspected (for whatever reason -- he refuses to give specifics) 'terrorists', with no oversight by any independent authority to ensure that the prisoners are not abused. Sadly, in 2006 Detektívtörténet no longer reads as a novel of what can happen in, say, Argentina or Hungary, but rather of what can and is being done by the governments of powers such as Russia and the United States.

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Detective Story: Reviews: Kertesz Imre: Other books by Kertész Imre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Kertész Imre was born in 1929. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature

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© 2006-2013 the complete review

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