In Germany, the prize for crime fiction, the equivalent of the American Edgar Award, is the Glauser Prize. It’s named for Friedrich Glauser, a German-language Swiss author of the Golden Age of detective fiction. He was a troubled man, addicted to morphine and opium, and he spent much of his life in psychiatric wards and in prison. But before he died (far too young, he was only 42), he produced a handful of strange, dreamy, somewhat absurdist detective novels, and In Matto’s Realm is one of them.
Although In Matto’s Realm features Sergeant Studer, a detective from the canton of Bern, this isn’t a police procedural. Studer has been called in by Dr. Laduner, a psychiatrist at a nearby insane asylum, to investigate the disappearance of an inmate named Pieterlen, a child-murderer. Soon, Studer discovers the body of the head of the asylum, Dr. Borstli, his neck broken. Everyone seems to think that Pieterlen is the obvious suspect, but there’s more to the case than first appears in “Matto’s realm” — Matto being the spirit of insanity, who digs his “fingernails, as long as those of a Chinese scholar, glassy and green,” into the brains of the patients while they sleep. You can see what I mean about the style, which leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling that you’re not quite sure what’s real.
Studer’s interactions with the other characters are quirky and unpredictable. He likes and respects Laduner (and Laduner’s kind wife), even when evidence against him begins to pile up, and he stays in a room in Laduner’s house — an unusual and often uncomfortable proceeding. He dismisses the two female doctors, because he “doesn’t like working women,” but then he has a thoroughly enjoyable meal and conversation with Fraulein Kölla, the cook. He gets up in the middle of the night because he can’t sleep and has a conversation with the night porter, which leads him to a crucial clue. In other words, he’s not the tiniest bit systematic, but he gets the job done. I never tried to figure out the mystery, myself. I just enjoyed watching Studer wander all over the asylum — surely a place Glauser was intimately familiar with — and probe its secrets.
One final, curious note about this book. It was originally published in 1936, and Glauser never makes overt mention of what is taking place elsewhere in Europe. But in one passage towards the end of the book, Studer and Laduner hear a radio broadcast, in which an “urgent, unpleasant foreign voice” is speaking about having made its nation great. Laduner switches the radio off, and speaks quietly:
…As I said before, contact with the mentally ill is contagious. And there are people who are particularly susceptible — whole nations can be susceptible. I once said something in a lecture to which people objected. Certain so-called revolutions, I said, are nothing more than the vengeance of psychopaths — at which a few colleagues left the room demonstratively. But it’s true.
And true it turned out to be. This was a very welcome entry in January’s international crime spree.
Translated thoughtfully, with attention to the important differences in accent, dialect, and the difference between du and Sie, by Mike Mitchell.