Auguste Groner and Early Austrian Crime-Fiction

1
3356
Image from lizzysiddal.wordpress.com
via (The well
via Austrian National Library
(The well-known Viennese author Auguste Groner, whose novels also appeared in the “Wiener Bildern” [“Viennese Pictures”,  a newspaper] celebrates her 75th birthday on April 16th)
    Looking the history of crime-fiction you might be fooled into thinking that German-speaking authors were somewhat late for the party, while British, American and some French writers did all the early work. However that is not true. Vienna-born Auguste Groner first sent out Joseph Müller in 1892, just a few years after Sherlock Holmes solved A Study in Scarlett.

It wasn’t her first foray into writing. She had started in 1882 and written historical, fantastical and adventure novels, for both adults and children. Her critics complained that Groner wrote about people that had too many moral shortcomings and that one could not expect children to deal with that. God forbid that we tell children that there are bad things in the world. (Critics also complained that she wrote about topics “only men could understand”…ah the good old times)

Presumably because of that, some of her writing was released under male or ambiguous pseudonyms (Olaf Björnson, A. von der Paura, M. Renorga and Metis) but eventually she decided to publish everything under her own name. That included her novels and novellas about Joseph Müller, the first series-detective of German-language crime fiction.

Müller has an interesting backstory. He spent several years in prison due to a “miscarriage of justice” that is not explained further. Afterwards he could not find any work as nobody was willing to employ a convict… except for the police interestingly. In the force, he is widely admired for his talent for solving crimes. Once he is on a trail he follows it till the end, barely eating and sleeping while doing that. However, he has a weakness, or rather something that passed as weakness back then: compassion. Sometimes, when he learns the full story, he has more sympathy for the perpetrator than for the victim and it is not unknown to see him let them go free. Unsurprisingly that does not make him terribly popular with his superiors and so he is eventually forced into early retirement. That is until his colleagues notice that they apparently can’t solve any crimes without him and so he comes back as a semi-official part of the police-force, helping them out with difficult cases.

There are many authors who were contemporaries of Conan Doyle and who also wrote detective-fiction. Having read some of those works, I do understand why Holmes remains popular up till this day and most others have fallen into obscurity. Holmes is one of the few who is an actual character. There are many occasions where you want to strangle him but there are also times where his actions move you. Other authors could certainly plot an engaging detective-story but the main-character seems more like a device to move the plot forward than a real person with emotions and quirks. Müller falls between those two extremes. He’s nowhere near as eccentric as Holmes but not as bland as some others. To an extent, he is certainly meant to be an Everyman character (the name Joseph Müller was very much the John Smith of those days) but his sympathy for others still separates him from other fictional detectives of his time (well, that and he’s a stamp-collector). On a side-note: while Müller was innocent in jail, one of her short-stories features an ex-convict who was not wrongfully imprisoned and who also start investigating a case. He fears that he will be blamed for the murder and tries to find the real killer before getting arrested. He succeeds and gets a job with the police. The same story also features a very sympathetic policeman (for once not an ex-convict):

He treated convicts as humans – as strayed humans but still as his kind – because he thought […] that those who were still one of his kind yesterday, weren’t suddenly different because they had given in to temptation, a temptation that could never touch him with his education, his secure income and job.

(Der seltsame Schatten, The Strange Shadow, translation: mine) A line of thought that was probably not shared by many people in the 1890s.

In the stories, the focus is not solely on the crime but on the people who committed it, as well as on the why. That is often connected to social issues. Many of the characters (not only the perpetrators) are social outcasts, from minority-groups, ex-convicts, etc. and only a few are irredeemably evil. Ex-convicts and the distrust they still face in society after their release is an issue that comes up frequently in the stories. In The Strange Shadow, a character remarks that some of them “try to better themselves with might and main but with might and main they are forced back into a life as criminal”. In fact the stories are often much more about the people than about the crime (and frankly, it’s often quite easy to guess who did it).

What makes the stories memorable are the vivid descriptions of how a crime affects those connected to it (both people close to the victim as well as the perpetrators), as well as the fact that she also tries to explain what drove the people to commit the crime in the first place. Most other writers from the period did not care too much about either but for Groner it was as important as the way Müller figured out who did it. She also based some of her stories on true unsolved crimes and in two cases her suggested solutions actually helped in catching the killer, because clearly she wasn’t cool enough already. Joseph Müller was not only a success in Austria and Germany, he also made his way across the pond and (as Joe Miller) became very popular in the US. Groner even received an award at the World Exhibition in Chicago. However after the First World War she fell into obscurity as Austria wasn’t a terribly popular country afterwards. In 1890 Groner also bought an old castle-ruin in Styria (because why wouldn’t you?) and renovated parts of it.

via Wehrbauten in Österreich
via Wehrbauten in Österreich Burg Alt-Teufenbach (no info on whether original Styrian vampires were included)

However Baron Teufenbach managed to persuade her to sell it back to him and today it’s still owned by the family. Auguste Groner died in 1929 in Vienna.

Today Mörderische Schwestern (Murderous Sisters), a German female crime-writers group regularly awards Die Goldene Auguste (The Golden Auguste) to reward people for services to female crime fiction.

via
via Moerderische-schwestern.eu

You can find several of her crime stories on Project-Gutenberg in the English translation and a few in German on Projekt Gutenberg-Spiegel. And yes, you can actually get more stuff in English than in German. No, I don’t know why either.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi! I just discovered Groner and, researching her further, I found this article. Thank you for spreading the word. I was looking for female bad-ass german writers and totally at a loss for the decade 1900-1910. Groner seems to have been quite the famous writer. It is a mystery to me how we could forget her so completely! I plan to read at least one of her books next year and talk about her on my blog as well. But now I guess I’m taking a deep dive into your archives, this place seems just right up my alley.
    Greetings from Germany!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here