Sergeant Stuber of the Bern police is awoken by a 5:00 am call from the chief of police. A patient at a mental asylum, Pierre Pieterlen, and the director of the institution, Dr. Ulrich “Ueli” Borstli, are missing.
No team is dispatched. Stuber will handle the investigation alone. Most surprisingly he moves into a room at the living quarters of the assistant director, Dr. and Mrs. Ernst Laduner, at the institution. The staff have rooms or apartments within the institution. Stuber will reside at the asylum until the investigation is complete. It is a great way to be immersed in a case.. Living there gives him the chance to assess staff and patients on and off duty. There is no real need for formal interviews. He can discuss with them what they know day or night.
The institution is organized into wards:
“O is the Observation Ward. That’s where the
new patients go, though we leave some for
years. It all depends. P is the ward for placid
patients. T is the Treatment Ward for those
suffering from physical illness. Then there are
the two wards for disturbed patients, D1 and D2,
D1 contains the isolation units….”
As he enters the asylum Dr. Laduner says:
But there’s one thing I will tell you before we
pass through this door. You’re paying a visit to
the subconscious, to the naked subconscious,
or, as my friend Schul puts it in his rather more
poetic manner: you are being taken to the dark
realm where Matto rules. Matto! That’s the
name Schul has given to the spirit of madness.
Amidst the mentally disturbed an evil spirit feels all too real to the Sergeant.
The previous night the asylum held its annual harvest festival for patients and staff. During the evening the Director and a young nurse, Irma Wasem, left together for a walk. The Director is noted for his fondness of young women.
He had loudly argued with staff that day.
Mrs. Laduner is irritated that the Director received credit for improvements and modernization of the facility that were initiated and carried out by her husband.
A male nurse, many of the nurses are men, already in desperate financial circumstances was on the verge of being fired by the Director.
Dr. Laduner had assessed Pieterlen as a young man when he was charged with murdering his child. Did he have the requisite mental capacity to understand his criminal actions? He was found to have enough capacity to be convicted. After 3 years of imprisonment he ended up in the asylum.
Studer venturing forth into the asylum at night sent a shiver through me as he went past doors behind which there was total silence or loud snores or “words spoken in a dream”.
Always on his mind is Dr. Laduner’s remark:
Contact with people who were mentally ill was
Studer is a shrewd man who has mastered the difficult skill of listening. He lets people talk to him. It is less dramatic than badgering a witness but very effective. Contrary to public opinion lawyers are often as glad as the best police officers in letting a witness talk on in answering a question. A rambling witness is prone to saying more than the witness intended.
Another aspect of staying at the institution during the investigation is that Studer can build relationships with staff. He inspires trust. Witnesses will open up more and tell more to an investigator they trust.
At the same time Studer is in the foreign land of the subconscious, Matto’s realm, at an institution where damaged minds are all around and a policeman’s logic can mislead him.
There is a sad and moving ending that surprised me.
It takes great skill to write a psychological mystery set in a psychological institution. Matto’s realm is real within the book.
In Matto’s Realm is a complex tale which reads very well 84 years after it was published. It is no surprise the Glauser Prize is awarded for prominent German crime fiction.