Fiction Review: The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1962) [SPOILERS]

The Physicists is a satiric drama written by Durrenmatt in 1962. Despite belonging to the genre of satiric drama, The Physicists resembles elements of a mystery fiction. The plot takes place at a sanatorium run by psychiatrist Mathilde von Zahnd. She takes care of three mentally ill patients, who each believe they are Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and King Solomon. It turns out that none of these patients are actually mad. Solomon is actually a renowned physicist, named Mobius, who made a discovery of the gravitation problem. Newton and Einstein are spies that infiltrated the sanatorium to secure Mobius’ documents and ideally, Mobius himself. A great plot twist takes place when the psychiatrist Mathilde von Zahnd reveals to have eavesdropped the conversation among the three men and that she is an evil woman who had known about Mobius and his documents regarding his scientific discoveries and that she is going to construct an international empire.

The Physicists can be regarded as a mystery fiction in that the identities of the characters in the drama are not the same as presented. We, the readers, are presented with the task of figuring out the motives of the three patients who think they are great physicists of the past. In addition, the drama also includes some elements of cozy elements of classical mystery and struggles of hard boiled mystery. Since the plot takes place in a sanatorium, meaning in an enclosed space where there is no physical danger, it can be considered a cozy. On the other hand, the outcome of the plot is a struggle for humanity, which hard boiled detectives have to face.

My favorite aspect of the book was the usage of chance events in driving the plot. In particular, the two spies did not consider the possibility of Mobius burning his documents before entering himself into the sanatorium. Also, the psychiatrist overhearing the conversation among the three men, as well as the final plot twist where she reveals that she had been secretly copying Mobius’ manuscripts of the scientific discoveries he made, are more examples of chance event. One important element of mystery fiction is unexpected surprise. The Physicists has quite numerous instances of such surprise and thus, can be considered a mystery.


Dürrenmatt, Friedrich. The Physicists. Evergreen Original. New York,: Grove Press, 1964.

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