"In Matto's Realm" by Friedrich Glauser

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Brought out by Friedrich Glauser in Germany in 1936, “In Matto’s Realm” contains the story of Herr Studer, at one time a chief inspector, but now simply a detective sergeant, brought in to discover what happened to the missing director of an insane asylum. Told at a time when modernizing changes were coming to homes where the mentally ill and incapacitated were kept, this book straddles eras, and brings us a very human, flawed hero.

“Matto” is the spirit of mayhem, or madness, as imagined by one of the inmates of the institution. This inmate ascribes to “Matto” multi-colored webs of war and fate and red bouncing balls of revolution in a malicious global campaign. Given the events here, the inmate is surely onto something. Detective Sergeant Studer has been called in by the rather un-forthcoming acting director of a Swiss mental institution when the Director goes missing. The mystery has its requisite violence, hidden motives, and suspicious characters, but this is clearly the story of Studer and Laduner, the new director-presumptive. They joust over psychology and motivation, over how to treat people including each other, over the new ideas of “analysis” and “therapy.” Though the jousting is fairly low-key for such high stakes – three people die during the story. They keep secrets from each other, alternately support and undermine each other, and certain misunderstandings last beyond the end of the book.

Herr Glauser’s meat consists of his treatment of Studer as the détective manqué: Laduner has kept so many secrets that he makes it impossible for Studer to do his job. His understanding of how the minds of schizophrenics and neurotics grows, but he does become compelled eventually, by the mythos of Matto, the demon who makes all consciousness and life miserable. At one point, Dr. Laduner obliquely supports the demon’s existence when he says the success of radical political movements is really the revenge of the psychotic.

The real characters of “In Matto’s Realm” get off fairly easy, Studer included, since one young man dies virtually in custody. I didn’t quite get the neat conclusions we like to see in murder mysteries, although that’s probably partly me and partly the translation (by Mike Mitchell). It’s a well-paced mystery, with a touch of modern forensics; its treatment of psychological disorders seems logical and straightforward; but its conclusion left me non-plussed. Does Detective Studer accept or even believe Dr. Laduner’s explanation of events? Is the doctor ever called to account for obstruction? Does the doctor ever come to realize the true service Studer has rendered him? I feel tepid about this book but respectful of its author, a onetime inmate of mental institutions himself.

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