Though cast as a detective story--and it's not a bad one--the distinctive pull of Dr. Neuman's first novel lies in his portrait of Four Elms, the mental hospital where manic-depressive Seymour Rather is found strangely strangled early one morning in the padded ""seclusion room."" For once, a psychiatric institution (this one has even lost its accreditation) is presented in all its hilarious, fearful awfulness without the romanticization of insanity or the glib anti-establishment rabble-rousing that has characterized recent asylum fiction. The narrator is Dr. Abe Redden, who's low-key and depressed and guilty (his wife committed suicide) but funny and tough too--just the right guy to tell us about patients being raped by orderlies; about psychiatrist Dr. Kwan (who thinks the unconscious is ""when happens you can't awaken somebody following up head blow""); about stupid and smug and unintentionally cruel nurse Amy (""I felt like hitting her, but that wouldn't do any good either""); or about patients like George Roll (who ""thought the President was part of a plot to shave off all his hair"") and the late, fascinating Seymour Ratner, whose case history receives extensive attention as Detective William Moore tries to decide whether Seymour died by accident, suicide, or murder. For someone new to fiction, Neuman has done quite a remarkable job of using his more-than-serviceable plot--a second possible murder, anonymous letters accusing Dr. Redden--as a comfortable framework for vignettes of deadpan or slightly satiric reportage. Mystery readers will not be disappointed by the intricate detection here, but a lot of non-mystery readers might well want to go with the mystery form this once--for sad Dr. Redden's downbeat charm and for a non-sensational, no-axe-to-grind look behind asylum walls and minds.