Sergeant Studer: Part One
In Matto’s Realm, by Swiss writer Friedrich Glauser, caught me up so thoroughly that I’d have read it in one sitting if I hadn’t begun reading so late in the evening; as it was, I stayed up past midnight, and then woke to read the last three chapters in bed before breakfast.
The story begins with an escaped child murderer and the subsequent discovery of a dead body. A classic mystery thriller? Not quite.
The setting is an insane asylum, pre 1936 Bern, Switzerland, and the characters are far from ‘type’; the inmates inhabit their own bizarre worlds, and even the staff tends to behave in baffling ways. Police Detective Sergeant Studer is called in at the request of Dr. Laduner, the asylum’s resident psychiatrist.
Studer vaguely recalls having met Dr. Laduner before, and over the course of the investigation details of their past involvement are revealed. Suffice to say, this involvement complicates the case.
Tension rises as Sergeant Studer questions staff and patients. The line between sanity and insanity begins to dissolve; he finds himself questioning who he can trust, whose words he can believe, as he struggles to discern the truth, given the inmates’ amorphous realities and the doctors’ often vague and complex interpretations.
That said, the book is not what one would call ‘fast-paced’, but I found it exquisitely engrossing; I was totally hijacked.
I also found In Matto’s Realm to be one of those books that demand time to absorb; over a week has gone by and I’ve yet to pick up another. This copy is due back at the library tomorrow, but in the mean time I’ve been re-reading pages, chapters even, recalling lines, asking myself questions: How do I really feel about the ending? What about the musical references? Would a better understanding of Swiss belt wrestling or the card game Jass have given me insights into Glauser’s plot structure?
My preoccupation reminded me of a post I’d read not long ago on the what are you reading for blog;
Having that gap between books is a vital opportunity to reflect upon them. Some of my most interesting reads are those where I’m not immediately sure what I thought about them. You engage with them, and feel them viscerally, but you’re not sure why. In those cases, as with bread dough, you need to leave a book alone for a while to see if it rises. For me, the length of the gap after finishing a book (and before beginning a new one) is often a good guide to how much I enjoyed it – or, perhaps more accurately, how much it affected me. If I’m still thinking about it a week later, even when I’m in the middle of something else, chances are I’ll still remember it a year, maybe 10 years, afterwards.
He’s so right. I knew I wasn’t alone in recognizing this somehow necessary pause after reading a book that’s affected me the way Friedrich Glauser’s In Matto’s Realm has, though I expect it’s entirely individual how different books affect each of us … but that’s another imponderable…
There’s no doubt I will be on the lookout for more by Friedrich Glauser.
So, my enthusiasm for In Matto’s Realm definitely has much to do with Friedrich Glauser’s writing, the circuitous ambiguities of the plot, the odd and often misinterpretable complexities of his characters, the subtly shadowed mirroring of the pre-1936 European political and social situation… all good things for a good read … but I’m here to search for moody sleuths, so I have to ask: Does Friedrich Glauser’s Sergeant Studer make the grade?
Well, in my last post, I mentioned that I was heartened by the series’ English language publisher, Bitter Lemon Press, who, in their website commentary, refer to Sergeant Studer as ‘cranky, morally-incorruptible, irascible, fed-up, and impatient with everyone and everything but his case.’
I honestly didn’t find Studer overly cranky, nor irascible, nor impatient, but he does have his moments.
More than one reviewer likened Studer to Simenon’s Maigret, but since I’ve not read enough of the of Maigret series to do a fair comparison, I looked back on the sleuths I have written about so far in this blog and realized that Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer shares a number of Sergeant Studer’s traits.
In my first post on Inspector Sejer, I commented on his intent focus on the investigation, his intelligent use of observation, [his] reasoning and intuitive understanding of human nature, and how he applies these strengths in unraveling mysteries and solving crimes. I also noted that His personal life rarely intrudes, but here and there we get insights into his character and beliefs.
Though Sergeant Studer also demonstrates an “intelligent use of observation” and an “ intuitive understanding of human nature” Glauser undermines his ability to use these skills by drawing him into the murky, convoluted world of an insane asylum populated by characters whose thoughts and behaviors are beyond the norm.
Studer soon finds that his usual methods of deducing motives are confounded by the inmates’ irrational thoughts and behaviors; his understanding of human nature isn’t as helpful as he’s come to expect when he’s dealing with damaged psyches.
Sergeant Studer’s personal life also rarely intrudes on the story, but now and again, as in Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series, we learn about his personal life, and “get insights into his character and beliefs”.
For instance, we learn that Studer has a wife and children via his questioning of an attractive young nurse who apparently had an amorous relationship with the murdered director of the asylum. Nurse Wassem refers to the director as “Ueli”, the familiar short-form of his given name, Ulrich:
Ueli… Dr. Ulrich Borstli MD, Director of Randlingen Psychiatric Clinic, was simply Ueli. Lucky old Dr. Borstli. Actually, Studer would certainly not have objected himself if Irma Wassem had called him “Kobi” or even better, “Kobeli”. His wife had got into the habit of calling him “Dad”. There were times when it got on his nerves…
We also learn that Studer is sometimes shy around women, and when Frau Laduner, wife of the resident psychiatrist, shares her first impression of Studer with her husband, and with Studer, she says: “he’s got a soft heart, he can’t stand children crying. Apart from that he’s a quiet one… “.
The quiet and thoughtful Studer also exhibits a sensitive awareness of his surroundings; as he wanders through the murdered director’s apartment, examining the contents, the old photos on the walls, the grand piano, locked and dusty, the bottle of brandy, beside it a single dirty glass, the two beds, one stripped of sheets and blankets, the other un-slept-in, Studer senses a profound loneliness.
While reading In Matto’s Realm, I had my eyes open for instances of Studer’s afore-mentioned irascibility, and I did find a few, though none so overt, say, as Inspector Costas Haritos.
At one point, Studer’s attempt to question one of the inmates is met by an angry tirade of abuse, which prompts Studer to react:
“Come now, Herr Schmocker,” said Studer, still in friendly tones. The only disturbing thing about this was that he was starting to speak formal German; at least anyone who had ever encountered Studer would have found it a disturbing sign.
Suffice to say, Herr Schmocker shouldn’t have ignored this sign.
In another instance, Studer questions a night watchman, and the watchman responds to his questions with a disrespectful and insinuating question instead of a direct answer.
“If there was anything Studer hated it was this kind of prying familiarity. Consequently he answered rather sharply.”
On this same theme, in another instance, one pompous character, used to ordering people about, addresses Studer as “You there…”
Studer had nothing against people addressing him … in formal German; or they could be as coarse as they liked – he just shrugged his shoulders; the Chief of Police could swear and curse at him – Studer said nothing, just grinned a little grin to himself maybe. But if there was one thing that got his back up and made him really angry, furious, it was someone addressing him as “You there … yes, I mean you.” Then he could become a dangerous customer.
Though there is little overt violence in this book; Studer isn’t above giving a recalcitrant suspect “a little tap on the chin” to induce compliance, nor is he beyond reacting to extreme situations in a believably human way.
Going back to my comments about shared traits, I feel there’s another similarity between Fossum’s Inspector Sejer and Glauser’s Sergeant Studer … a sense of loss, of longing.
In my first post on Inspector Sejer, I noted that he is a widower, his much-loved wife having died of cancer several years ago, leaving a huge hole in his life that he’s not quite ready to address. By contrast Sergeant Studer’s sense of loss is unexplained, merely memories, apparently prompted by music.
Perhaps a third of the way through In Matto’s Realm, Studer overhears Frau Laduner, in another room in the Laduner home, prompted by her son to sing “the French song”:
Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment.
chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.
An alto … Suddenly Studer was far away, although he was leaning his head against the panel of the door. Randlingen Clinic and the old man who had broken his neck receded into the distance, and with them [the escaped inmate], whose description was to be circulated, and Dr, Laduner with the smiling mask, to which he would have to give some serious thought.
In his mind’s eye Studer saw a jungle of flowers and roofs from which there rose a dull hum, interrupted now and then by short shrill sounds. Trails of mist swirled and a glittering river wove its way through the houses below. Beside him sat a woman, accompanying herself on a guitar as she sang:
J’ai tout quitté pour l’ingrate Sylvie.
Her voice was untrained, dark and full of sadness…
It has occurred to me that this connection between music and memory might be explained in the first book of the series; I trust I will find out when I track down a copy, but until then I’m fine with counting this ‘dreaminess’ as a measure of Sergeant Studer’s ‘moodiness’.
I do have quite a bit more to say about Friedrich Glauser’s Sergeant Studer, and about why I enjoyed this book so much, but I see that this post is getting rather long, and it’s also getting late, so I’m going to stop here for now.
I’ll post Part Two as soon as I can manage.