Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576
This short, tantalizing novel is an adaptation of the tale of Bluebeard, a villainous knight who had seven wives and killed six of them. The hero in this modern rendition is Felix Schaad, a fifty-four-year-old Zurich physician accused of strangling Rosalinde Zogg, a call girl and his sixth wife.
Unlike typical murder mysteries, the suspense in this masterpiece does not lie with the jury’s verdict, for the novel begins with the doctor having been acquitted on grounds of insufficient evidence. Instead, the drama revolves around a second, private trial within the courtroom of Schaad’s own conscience. Confused and distraught by the jury’s inconclusive verdict, Schaad relives the painful ordeal of his trial in an attempt to ascertain his own guilt. The narrative consists largely in remembered excerpts from the testimonies of Schaad’s accusers, interspersed with comments and embellishments from the accused.
Although Schaad is legally acquitted, his attempts to return to the routine of his former life prove unsuccessful. With his once-thriving medical practice in ruins, Schaad finds himself alone in his office—a physician with few patients but with an abundance of time to think about his tragic past. Tormented, yet unable to silence the voices in his mind, Schaad seeks relief in drink, travel, and billiards. Such diversions, however, offer only momentary escape. Inevitably, Schaad’s thoughts return to the testimonies of his accusers.
One by one, Schaad recalls the witnesses who brought testimony against him: his former wives, a cleaning lady, an antique dealer, a nurse, a custodian of the cemetery, and a janitor. While their testimony is contradictory and unsubstantiated, few come to his defense and an abundance of circumstantial evidence points toward his guilt. After all, he alone was known to have a key to the apartment of the victim; the crime was committed with his necktie; he was the last individual known to be present with the deceased; and it was he who sent the five lilies found lying across the breast of the lifeless body. Moreover, each of his three alibis—that he was walking in the woods, working on tax matters in his office, and viewing a Czech film—were successively disputed by other testimony. Indeed, Schaad could not recall where he was at the time of the murder.
Months pass, yet the cross-examination in his beleaguered mind continues. He is forced to sell his medical practice. His seventh wife returns from a business trip in Kenya with a new lover and announces her desire for a divorce. Meanwhile, details of Schaad’s whereabouts and activities on the day of the murder seem to become more focused in his confused mind. With his professional and personal life in shambles, Schaad falls prey to hallucinations and suicidal urgings. Ultimately, he concludes that he is guilty, drives to Ratzwil—his birthplace, a town nowhere near the scene of the crime—and confesses to the murder.
In a surprising turn of events, however, the police reject his confession and inform Schaad that the true murderer has been apprehended and is in custody. Schaad is not the Bluebeard he has admitted to being. Yet this truth makes little difference. While driving back to Zurich, Schaad crashes his car into a tree in an attempted suicide. The story ends with Schaad’s speechless body—if not lifeless corpse—lying in a hospital ward, and an anonymous female voice saying, “Why did you make the confession?... You are in pain.”