bag·man (băg’mәn) n., pl. –men (mĭn). 1. Slang.

dishonest official; a person who collects, carries, or distributes illegal payoff money.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Matto Means Madness

In Matto’s Realm by Friedrich Glauser

Matto is Italian for Madness.

 In Matto’s Realm, first published in serial form in 1936, reflects on the madness of pre-World War II Europe through the microcosm of a Swedish insane asylum. When I finished the last page to this one, I closed the book and said, “Wow.” That doesn’t happen too often.

A few years back, I was lucky enough to stumble across a copy of Thumbprint, the first of the BitterLemon Press translations of this mystery pioneer’s novels. A straight mystery, I was immediately taken with both the overall atmosphere and its detective of few words, Detective Sergeant, Jakob Studer. So I was pleasantly surprised to come across In Matto’s Realm, and with good reason. Remember, the German Mystery Writers Award is still called “The Glauser.”

Glauser, a veteran of the Foreign Legion, was also a diagnosed schizophrenic (the criteria has since changed), and an opium and morphine addict. He spent most of his life—and wrote his first novel—in mental institutions in Sweden, only to die right before marriage at the age of 42. And it's his background that makes this novel work leagues beyond most of the other doily-laden cozies of mystery’s so-called “golden age.”

It starts when Sergeant Studer is called to an insane asylum where a baby-killing, schizoid patient and one of the doctors on-staff is missing. Studer discovers the body of the doctor in a boiler room, and then things get interesting. Studer is one of those intuitive detectives that cognitively places himself among the inner workings of whatever world his victims seem to inhabit, and then, after holding his tongue through much of the book, puts everybody in their place by solving the crime. Or at least it seems that way. The problem here is, half the suspects are covering something up, and the other half are crazy. Or are they?

The list of suspects is endless.

The aging director whose young girlfriend—a nurse in the women’s ward—may have been having an affair with the baby-killer. His second in command whose methods have run up a high body count. (Remember, these were the days of cold shock, and sleep, therapy.) Nurses who want a union. Staff who don’t. The son of one of Studer’s political enemies from the police force. The nurse in the women’s ward. A doctor’s wife who wants him to have that promotion. The baby killer, and of course my favorite:

Schül, a veteran of the First World War and grenade victim, whose “face was one big scar. His nose had been flattened and in place of nostrils the ends of two silver tubes stuck out; his mouth looked like a poorly healed cut.” Schül worships Matto, writes poems about him, has even seen him where he lives in the apartment above the director’s on the asylum grounds.

And if you really want to see how a story can act as a time capsule—giving us a glimpse in hindsight of what was to come—wait for the scene amongst the staff and patients when a certain German dictator is speaking on the radio: “It was an urgent voice, but its urgency was unpleasant.” Prompting one of the doctors to ask, “Where does Matto’s realm end, Studer?”

Again, what makes this book work so well is Glauser’s background. Back in 1936, nobody knew that much about psychiatry. It was a new field. And while the rest of the world was giving us different versions of “The Snake Pit,” none of Glauser’s asylum patients are too far over the top. They are realistic people, with realistic illnesses, stuck in circumstances they could never have foreseen.

It’s as much of a whydunnit as a whodunit, but you’d have to be psychic to figure the ending. It’s a cold, cold ending—left me with the kind of feeling I had at the end of Hammett’s The Glass Key. Top that with a laconic hero who, despite his exterior, has a genuine love for humanity, a keen psychological insight of his own—and that rare ability to wait until the right moment.

Looks like Sergeant Studer is my new hero.

Monday, June 13, 2011

King--of the Khyber Rifles (Pulp at the Chicago Library)

Hey, Gang! Sorry we’ve been off the intertubes here for a while, but damn it’s hard getting the time machine fine tuned. (And that Bell kid is always writing, lord only knows what else –Mac) Regardless, B. C. just finished ignoring reality via a beat up, old copy of KING--OF THE KHYBER RIFLES by Talbot Mundy. So, take it away, BC!

First off, if you don’t know who Talbot Mundy is, let me tell you what I know: He wrote a lot of stories for the pulp ADVENTURE MAGAZINE, and evidently the African natives in the villages he frequented knew enough to keep their women away from him. That’s about all I know about Mundy—which is why I read the book. But of course you can read more Adventure Magazine here.

Warning for the politically correct: Mundy, like most Brits at the time, loved his empire every bit as much as Kipling. So there’s a lot of “Queen and country” devotions, and a lot of blanket statements about both Indian and British Culture. The good news is he loves India, and he spends some time telling you so.  The bad news is, history kills ideologies faster than bombs, thus giving us wonderful ironies like:

   …for the Khyber Pass is as much British as the air is an eagle’s or Korea Japanese, or Panama United States American…

And these little gems litter the book (or for some of us, make it all that more delightful).

So It’s 1916, World War I. Our hero is Athelstan King who smokes the blackest cheroots available, and carries a medical book around under his arm even though he’s not a doctor. King seems to be modeled on T. E. Lawrence of Arabia which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like King—of the Khyber rifles. So yeah, he’s pretty much “King of India.”

Our hero is sent on a secret mission to rendezvous with the mysterious Yasmini, who leads a bad of cutthroat thieves and killers in “the hills” of the Himalaya just beyond the Khyber Pass. The thieves of “the hills” have been working both sides of the British/German fence, and Yasmini has specifically requested a conference with Athelstan King by name. If King can convince her to side with the British, the Khyber Pass would be impenetrable.

From the beginning it’s obvious there are those who don’t want him to get there. Aware that he’s being both followed and sent in wrong directions, King’s plans are again waylaid when Yasmini doesn’t show up to meet him, but rather sends one of her aids with a bracelet. If King wears the bracelet, he’ll be given a free pass from every tribe in the dessert. Maybe. Even then for one to get past “the hills” sentries they must prove they’ve killed an Englishman.

After outwitting a few scalawags and killers on the train, King journeys through the dessert to the Khyber Pass. His brother, already stationed there, helps him apply an ingenious dye to his body that won’t wear off, and it’s just damn lucky for him his Indian dialects are perfect.

There are a lot of spoilers here that actually caught me by surprise (which doesn’t always happen reading books published almost a hundred years ago), but let’s just say this tale has a secret city, two ancient lovers in a tomb—one of them a Roman soldier that looks just like King—and when someone else tries to use his brother’s head to gain entrance to the ultimate hideout… Well, then things get real interesting.

While a bit long-winded in places, the prose is near poetic. Mundy knows how to sling a phrase. This is truly a romantic adventure from the age of empire that still works. And, yes, there’s one more big surprise at the end.

And that’s all I know about Talbot Mundy.