Detective Story

Detective Story is a short but heavy novel written by Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. Just a little over 100 pages long, Detective Story is a letter written by Antonio Martens while currently in jail and waiting for his execution day.

The novel is set in an unnamed country in South America currently under the dictatorship of a man referred to by Martens only as the “Colonel”.  A former police detective and member of the Corps under the Colonel, Martens was among those in charge of identifying, apprehending, and interrogating persons of interests to the government; suspected members of the resistance, likely to cause an uprising.

Antonio Martens’ letter is a confession he gives to his attorney, explaining the part he played in the Salinas Case – the arrest, interrogation, and torture of Federigo and Enrique Salinas, father and son.  Federigo Salinas was owner of a chain of shopping malls and a well-respected member of the business community.  His son, Enrique was a young, spoiled, idealistic young man; restless, lost, and eager to rise up and take action against the oppressive regime, to be part of something bigger than himself.

Martens is the source of everything the readers know of Enrique and Federigo Salinas, and his information comes mainly from Enrique’s diary, which was seized by the Corps, and from their surveillance tapes and recordings of him and his father once they were put under observation. Tipped off by an informant, Marten’s group is convinced that Enrique and later, his father Federigo, are part the resistance working to overthrow the Colonel.

Before joining the Corps, Antonio Martens was a police officer, tired of the usual murder, and rape cases, wanting to further his career. By joining the Corps, the government’s elite police group created to provide Homeland security as well as to protect the Colonel, Martens believes that he is applying his skills for a greater good, in improving his country.  He confesses that what he finds at the Corps – people with loose morals ready to use violence against citizens of the State, shocked him at first.  He also confesses the Corps’ liberal use of gadgets and other devices to torture suspects to get them to talk, and their murder of countless men suspected to be part of the resistance, whether or not they were actually guilty.  It was their job to keep peace in the new regime, and they were authorized to carry it out by any means.

During his confession, Martens is not remorseful, nor does he try to assert his innocence in the Salinas Case or as a member of the Corps.  He does describe other members of the Corps, namely the two men he worked with, as more violent and cruel – doing their job with a strange passion, one which he never felt, then or now.  Now, in jail for countless murders he, whether directly or indirectly, took part in, Martens uses his remaining days to tell his side of what really happened in the Salinas Case, and to make sense of his life, before it’s too late.

Marten’s narrative in Detective Story is captivating, almost alluring, though what he talks about – of interrogations, tortures, and senseless violence, is often painful to read.  By sharing his thoughts on the Salinas Case, Enrique and his diary, not only does he describe the type of people the Salinas were, he also exposes his own vulnerability and weaknesses.

Don’t let its thinness fool you; the Detective Story is a heavy, complex novel,  that exposes the cruelty and senseless violence of those who hold power in a totalitarian type of government.  The Salinas Case in Detective Story, is an example of the futility felt by the oppressed  in fighting for their rights and freedom under a dictatorial regime.

In terms of length and overall impact, this novel reminds me a bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in that both showcase the darker side of humanity, and senseless loss of human life due to misunderstandings.


Detective Story (1977) – Imre Kertesz

Knopf; 108 pages

Personal rating:  3.5/5

3 thoughts on “Detective Story

  1. I’ve found that many of the books I’m reading by non UK/USA authors tend to fall into that category of captivating though painful to read. This seems to pack a punch well above its length.

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