(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

To qualify as a detective novel and not merely a novel depicting a crime, a work must conform to certain criteria. The mystery of who perpetrated the crime must be paramount, rather than the crime itself. The reader must be made aware of the mystery and must be shown the evidence that leads ultimately to the solution of the crime. Several suspects should be present. There should be clues for the reader to interpret, and red herrings should be drawn across the reader’s path. There must be an investigator who is perspicacious enough to interpret the evidence correctly and eventually disclose the culprit.

The many lurid tales of murder, robbery, and mayhem that were published in Europe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries displayed for the most part few of these characteristics. The horrible crimes themselves were the principal object of these works, together with the biographies of the villains, who generally ended up on the gallows or under the executioner’s ax. Literature of a higher order that dealt with crime was interested in the motivations of the perpetrator, or in his guilt, and seldom was much concerned with the detection of his crime.

The Caliber

There is some disagreement among German scholars as to whether Adolf Müllner’s The Caliber should be labeled a detective novel or novel depicting a crime. Certainly it contains a number of the characteristics mentioned. The story takes place in 1816 somewhere in Germany. The work is told in the first person, the narrator being an Untersuchungsrichter, or examining magistrate, roughly equivalent to an American district attorney. In those days the task of investigating crimes fell into the hands of such magistrates. Therefore, to the extent that such was possible in this period, this is a police procedural.

One autumn evening, the magistrate is perusing documents pertaining to robberies that took place in the nearby forest. He is interrupted by a young man coming to his door. The man is a commercial traveler named Ferdinand Albus, and he informs the magistrate that his brother Heinrich was shot to death by a robber in the forest, yet he is not able to describe the robber. The magistrate goes to the scene of the crime with Ferdinand and the appropriate officials and finds the brother lying there shot through the heart, with his cane-sword beside him, partly unsheathed. Ferdinand tells the magistrate that he had left his pistol at the murder site, but it cannot be found. The young man is overcome with grief and cries out, “Mariane—Mariane! You won’t be able to bear it—I can’t bear it! Both—both lost!” At first the circumstances make the magistrate suspicious of Ferdinand, but he decides that there is really no evidence against him.

An autopsy shows that Heinrich was killed by a bullet that penetrated the heart and lungs but that remains lodged, only partly out of shape, in the shoulder blade. The magistrate learns that the Mariane whose name Ferdinand had invoked is the daughter of a rich merchant. He meets the daughter and becomes her confidant. He learns that she is engaged to Ferdinand, but that Heinrich, too, had been in love with her. In the meantime, with the help of the militia of the adjacent state, the robber gang has been apprehended, and the members have been divided up between the two states to answer to justice.

When spring arrives, the magistrate is informed by Mariane that Ferdinand is obsessed by the idea that he was responsible for his brother’s death. He cannot bring himself to marry Mariane because of his guilt feelings. Mariane persuades the magistrate to convince Ferdinand that he is innocent. The magistrate apparently does so, and the wedding date is set. On the eve of the wedding, however, Ferdinand confesses that he perpetrated the crime. He and his brother had quarreled, and his brother had started to draw his cane-sword on him. Fearful for his life, Ferdinand had drawn his pistol and struck Heinrich’s arm with it. The gun had accidentally fired and killed Heinrich.

The magistrate finds an able attorney to defend Ferdinand’s interests—Dr. Rebhahn. Rebhahn finds the case interesting because it deals with a gray area between intentional guilt and accident. Ferdinand had intended to strike his brother in self-defense, but he had not intended to kill him. In spite of his spirited defense, Ferdinand is found guilty and sentenced to death.

To gain time, Rebhahn procures a stay of execution until the murder weapon is found. A search is made, and the pistol is found in a nearby river where...

(The entire section is 1884 words.)