Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Detective Story in Germany by Grace Isabel Colbron 1910



The Detective Story in Germany by Grace Isabel Colbron 1910

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THE best writer of detective stories in Germany to-day is undoubtedly Augusta Groner, of Vienna. Her name is never mentioned in the magazines that set a standard of criticism, and the essayists who discourse on modern literature know not her fame. This is natural, for detective stories are not literature, according to German ideas. But Augusta Groner's novels are sold in cheap editions in enormous quantity, and there is a steady demand for her work.

With Anna Katherine Green she shares a lonely niche as an example of what women can, but usually do not, do as writers of detective stories. Mrs. Groner's work is uneven, but in the best of it her skill in inventing and unravelling a mystery places her in the front rank. She makes no pretence at literary style; her manner of writing is quaint and old-fashioned, but most of her characters are alive, and there is no disputing her gift as a spinner of yarns. The plot is full of interest always, and grips from the beginning. There are a few isolated examples of good detective stories by other German writers, and there is an immense deal of poor work of the same kind to be found. But there is no qther writer of detective stories whose collective work would stand comparison with the books of the best French and English writers in the same field.

Within the limits of her chosen line of work Augusta Groner is very versatile. She does not tie herself down to any particular method, no two of her novels are alike in construction. She gives us the crime-mystery where the main interest hinges on the revealing of the truth by the work of skilled professionals; and she gives us also the crime-mystery sufficient unto itself, the story where the theme centres in the fate of those near to the victim. But there is always a mystery, and a good one, which does not let the reader's attention flag.

One of Mrs. Groner's latest stories, and one of the best, was The Crippled Hand, and had a plot of more than usual strength and interest. The suspense was cleverly handled, and the mystery not solved until the last chapter. It had some unique points of difference from the conventional in that sort of story, and was well constructed. While Augusta Groner strikes out in new fields very frequently, some of her best stories are connected by the personality of a professional detective, for she, too, following noted precedent, has created one favourite figure who is concerned in the unravelling of many of her most exciting mysteries. Mrs. Groner's detective is Joseph Muller, a member of the Austrian Secret Police. Muller is a small, meek-looking individual, who has gone wrong in youth and has devoted his life afterward to the hounding down of crime. Muller is one of the natural-born detectives, the lust of the chase affects him as it does a bloodhound. He is a genius, and would be invaluable to the Austrian police were it not for a very peculiar trait in his character, a trait which makes him differ from all other noted detectives of fiction. Muller suffers from a soft heart, and when, as often happens in following tip a crime, he discovers that the criminal, whom he never fails to unearth, is a far better man than his victim, this soft heart proves his undoing. More than once Muller warns his prey and the law is balked. Because of this Muller is at last obliged to leave his official position, but a little fortune left him by a high official whom he saved in this manner from disgrace allows him to live the quiet life of retirement that suits him. But his creator hints that the police are inclined to consult Muller in private over any knotty problem, and she has also many adventures of his earlier life to fall back on. Among the best of the stories with Muller as a central figure are the three novels entitled Murdered? The Golden Bullet, and Why She Put Out the Lamp. In the first, the chance finding of a note-book on a lonely road leads to the saving of a young heiress from imprisonment or even possible death at the hands of a rascally stepbrother who desires her fortune. The Golden Bullet is the story which puts an end to Muller's official career and gives him an independent income. A handsome young college professor is found dead in his study, with all the doors and windows locked on the inside, and a golden bullet in his heart. From the nature of the wound suicide is impossible, and the professor's own revolver lies fully loaded at his side, a weapon of a different calibre from the one which fired the fatal bullet. Aided by a chance incident which reveals a clue to his quick mind, Muller follows up the mystery and discovers that the murderer is a high official in good standing at the Court of the little Duchy where the murder takes place.

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But the facts back of the murder win Muller's heart for this official, who is a far nobler and better nature than his faithless wife (whom he drove to her death at her own hands) or her coward lover, whom the betrayed husband killed with a bullet made from his wife's wedding ring. Muller warns Councillor Kniepp, who, by suicide, escapes from the disgrace of a trial, and in gratitude the rich councillor leaves a little fortune to the detective. But the police, glad themselves to have shut off a Court scandal, are obliged to discharge Muller, as they cannot officially countenance the balking the law of its prey.

But in an earlier story, Why She Put Out the Lamp, we are told another of Muller's exploits, and it is a tale of high excellence along the lines of the conventionally constructed detective story. The tale starts with the discovery of the murder, and Muller, despite the blundering efforts of the official authorities, who run into all sorts of blind alleys in following up wrong clues, tracks down the murderer in the person of a very sympathetic young painter. But Muller and the reader have both grown to like the artist, and the victim was an utterly worthless blackmailer, killed in a moment of righteous wrath. Muller wavers between his duty and his strong desire to aid in the escape of the man his own efforts alone have brought to bay. He need do nothing, he need merely not tell what he knows and Hubert Thorn can escape. But the latter, hearing that an innocent man has been imprisoned for his crime, makes the decision for Muller, and gives himself up. He is tried and convicted, with all sorts of extenuating circumstances, and the story has what might almost be called a "happy ending." It is a good story, that does not give a moment's chance for a flagging of the interest.

By a Thread and The Ninty-seventh are other good stories from the pen of Augusta Groner, the last being a weird and gruesome tale of a murder done by a lunatic who in his violent moments fancies himself a reincarnation of the French murderer Cardillac. By a Thread is a rather unusual story of a small provincial town in which a fat and peaceful citizen, a retired merchant, is forced by circumstances to become a detective in secret and to unearth the mystery of the life of a leading light of the town. Taken all in all, Mrs. Groner's work is excellent and entitles her to be named with the best of other lands. She improves as she goes on, her later works are free from a certain old-fashioned style of narrative which dulls the others at times, the action is quicker, the method of construction more up to date.

Dietrich Theden, Carl Rosner, Frederick Thieme, and J. Kaulbach are other German writers who have essayed detective stories. Rosner's novel, The Versegy Case, and Theden's, The Counsel for the Defence, are clever stories of the conventional sort. Kaulbach's White Carnation is better than either, as the mystery is less easily solved, and it fulfils the rule of the best detective story construction, i.e., that the murderer shall be before our eyes, unsuspected, from the very beginning. The story is also humanly interesting through its love plot, for it is the efforts of a young girl to clear her betrothed's name that lead to the unravelling of the mystery.

Not Guilty, by August Schrader, is another rather good tale, the interest centring in the personality of a mysterious young woman and an Unknown, who sends her a regular income through a Hamburg bank. The story begins excellently, keeps an even pace throughout two-thirds of the book, but weakens badly toward the end.

If we would include in the detective story class stories of mystery only, then we find many of the best names of German literature among the writers of such tales. Zschokke's The Dead Guest is a classic both in literary value and in the excellence of the narrative. The delightful manner in which an old superstition works up in the incidents that happen in a little provincial capital, aided and abetted by the pranks of two or three young men, one of whom impersonates the legendary Dead Guest, makes a story which is thrilling throughout and yet has the happy ending so beloved of Anglo-Saxon readers. Wilhelm Hauff in his story The Singer gives evidence of a talent for working up a mystery which might have led him to write detective stories had he lived in the present day. A young Italian singer in a German opera house has been mysteriously stabbed in her own apartment at midnight after a ball. She does not know who her assailant was, and through a chance word on her part and the officious blundering of a pompous chief of police, a worthy citizen of the town and well-known society man falls under suspicion. This old Councillor Bohlnau is a very amusing figure, and his own terror at the suspicion which rests upon him brings him almost to believe that he did commit the crime. The humorous side of the story, in the person of the Councillor and in the figure of an attractive but very eccentric young musician, runs along well with the tragedy in the past life of the young singer. She recovers from her wound, however, her assailant is discovered and all ends happily. This story has a position in classic German literature which it has justly earned.

Baroness de la Motte Fouque wrote an interesting little story called The Revolutionists, in which the mystery is well sustained. The lack in this little tale, however, is that we do not know, when we come to the end of it, who the most mysterious of the characters really was.

That unique genius E. T. A. Hoffman, whose work undoubtedly influenced Edgar Allan Poe, has given us two or three mystery stories as strong and as characteristic as are all of his writings. Mlle, de Scudery is a thrilling tale of the days of the Great Louis and of the deeds of the great murderer Cardillac. The Deserted House is another wonderful Hoffman story in which a weird house, apparently deserted of normal life but evidently inhabited by something, an uncanny old servitor, a magic mirror, a crazy countess, a gypsy woman, and a beautiful girl, are mingled together in the kaleidoscopic manner which is one of Hoffman's most entrancing qualities. There are snatches and bits of mystery scattered through the many stories signed by Hoffman, but the two above mentioned are most nearly like in form and content to the sort of story we are here discussing.

To come back to more modern times, there is a story by the well-known novelist and playwright Paul Lindau, entitled Helene Jung, which is considered one of his best. It is a very good novel, and it would be a good mystery story also, had the author not been more of a playwright than a novelist. In a novel it would be quite permissible to let the beautiful heroine remain a mystery until the very last chapter. She is young, beautiful and wealthy, we know that she has suffered unjustly, she has our sympathies entirely and we are quite willing to read on until the end of the book, before we find out just how she is connected with a catastrophe that ruined a certain noble family several years back. The interest of the story is well sustained, it is a sort of thing one wants to read through in a sitting. But Lindau is a successful playwright, and one of the first articles in the playwright's creed is that while the persons in the play may be kept in ignorance of the antecedents and the identity of the principal character, the audience must be told the truth at an early stage of the game or it will lose interest. Therefore the author inserts a letter into one of the earlier chapters, a letter written by the heroine to a cousin in Paris, which tears away the mystery from the story altogether, and leaves one only the personal charm of the girl and our interest in her Dossible fate to sustain our sympathies. This letter in Lindau's book is the best example of the great difference between the construction of a novel and the construction of a play.

Ernst von Wildenbruch's novel The Wandering Light has a well-sustained mystery with a thrill of uncanny horror in it. And, with most of the other writings of this versatile playwright-novelist, it is a work of true literary value as well.

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