It is a truth universally quoted that Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) is the father of the modern detective story. Well, Germanist and translator Mary Tannert has something to say about that The Emergence of Crime Fiction in German (Chapter 2 of Crime Fiction in German).
Having first explained the social factors that enabled the development of crime fiction in Germany, namely the late-C18th move away from a judicial system based on the extraction of confession through torture to one based on judges and examining magistrates, she points to the Adolph Müllner’s novella The Calibre (1828), one she has herself translated in the volume Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction. Unfortunately the anthology is out-of-print and a small fortune to buy second-hand. Fortunately though Detective Siddal tracked down a reference copy in the Glasgow Goethe Institute.
As a crime story written very much in the Romantic tradition, The Calibre made for an interesting and amusing read. ( I can’t help it – all those highly strung emotions make me smile.) Here we have two brothers, a stash of cash, a love interest, a bandit, and – remember the Romantic bit – a forest! And a pistol shot which rings out as the two brothers are fighting over the money. The younger one wants his inheritance to marry. The elder one isn’t for allowing it. After the pistol shot rings out, the elder, stingy one lies dead.
Ferdinand reports that a bandit has shot his brother and immediate evidence vindicates him. Second thoughts, however, rack him with guilt and by now a giddy, tempest-tossed soul confesses to his brother’s murder. It falls to his defence to establish the facts. Dr Rebhahn introduces reasoning or ratiocination to the case, and sets about seeking the physical evidence to resolve the mystery.
And there we have it, a ratiocinative resolution. We’ll come back to that, particularly with regard to Poe.
For now, though let’s travel back in time with more German crime fiction; Mademoiselle de Scudéri – E T A Hoffmann (1819) and The Duel – Heinrich von Kleist (1811) being oft-quoted examples. While it’s tempting to argue that Mlle de Scudéri is the first example of a female detective, that would be a flimsy argument. Her role is pivotal in ensuring that an innocent man does not die for a crime he did not commit, but she doesn’t actively seek the evidence. It lands in her lap so to speak. There’s no detective at all in Kleist’s story, which depicts the medieval judicial system of trial by duel. That said, it is an exploration of whether truth can be uncovered by divine intervention, feeling or material evidence, and uncovering the truth is what crime fiction is all about.
It does appear that the precursors to German crime fiction as we now know it lie within the German Romantic movement. I hesitate to add to that corpus Schiller’s The Criminal of Lost Honour (1786), but only because I can never remember when Schiller fell out with the Romantics. What I can say, is that the familiar Romantic elements are there: the forests, the bandits. This a must read for lovers of The Robbers, even if it’s not exactly the Robbers in prose. It’s also a surprising read in that it examines sociological reasons for criminality and the downward spiral into hardened crime in an enlightened way.
The cards are stacked against Schiller’s protagonist Christian Wolf from the start.
Nature …. bestowed on him an appearance so repulsive that it made all women recoil on him ….
To seek favour with his beloved, he gifts her the proceeds of his poaching. Inevitably he is caught and sent to prison. Ostracised when he returns, he has no other options than to become an outlaw. From bad to worse is the only route open to him, and when he takes vengeance on the cause of his initial incarceration, there is no way back.
I read Schiller’s story in the anthology German Stories of Crime and Evil from the 18th Century to the Present, translated by M Charlotte Wolf, which contains three other early German crime stories. The first, A Noblewoman Amongst Murderers by August Gottlieb Meißner (1785) features Baroness R, a resourceful resilient lady, who single-handedly foils the robbery of her castle (and is a refreshing change from the usual Romantic female leads.). Christian Heinrich Speiß’s Mariane L – A True Incident from the Year 1788 (1801) tells of a judicial tribunal’s investigation into the murder of the 13-year old Mariane. Like Müllner’s The Calibre the emphasis is on witness testimony and hard evidence and it has more in common with Poe than Willibald Alexis’s The Pledge of the Three Thieves, published in 1845, four years after The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841).
Which brings us neatly to Poe and the claim that he is the father of all modern detective crime fiction? Do I agree? Let’s break it down using the evidence presented in this post.
Poe – father of crime fiction? No, based on the evidence of the 6 German crime stories discussed here, all of which predate The Murders In the Rue Morgue, I have to agree with Tannert’s assertion that accepted notions regarding the parentage of the genre must be revisited.
Poe – Father of detective crime fiction? Tricky or in German Jein! I’m splitting hairs pointing out that Müllner’s Dr Rebhahn isn’t a detective – he’s an investigating magistrate, a combination of police detective and district attorney rolled into one. But he does solve the case using evidence and reason (backed up with a coincidental confession). No divine interventions or emotions at play here. So in that respect, it could be argued there’s a pattern for Dupin to follow, although I couldn’t tell you if Poe read The Calibre.
Poe as the father of all modern detective crime fiction? If we’re talking about a protagonist solely as detective, relying entirely on his superior powers of logic and reasoning, then yes. In re-reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue I was struck by how frequently Dupin refers to his favourite word – ratiocination. What I was less convinced by was the ease of his resolution. How acquainted could Dupin have been with the anatomy of an orangutang? That felt suspiciously like a suprarational deduction to me.
This post is the second in a series inspired by Crime Fiction in German: Der Krimi edited by Katharina Hall. Coming soon Chapter 3: Austrian Crime Fiction.