The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Caliber" (1828)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Caliber” (original: “Der Kaliber”) was written by Adolph Müllner and first appeared in Mitternachtblatt (1828). Müllner (1774-1829) was a German writer of legal books and drama.
“The Caliber” begins with the story’s narrator, Mr. von L., a local magistrate, being approached one night by Ferdinand Albus, a young businessman from the nearby town of B. Ferdinand reports that he was traveling through the nearby forest when his brother Heinrich was shot and murdered by a bandit. Ferdinand is nearly hysterical over the murder, and when he leads Mr. von L. to the site where Heinrich’s body lies, Ferdinand cries out disjointed words “in tones of the most violent anguish” and passes out. Mr. von L. sees to it that Ferdinand is cared for and then has an autopsy performed and the fatal bullet retrieved. Ferdinand soon wakes up and Mr. von L. questions him about his domestic situation and that of Heinrich. Heinrich was a successful businessman, and his death positions Ferdinand to inherit his wealth and property. Ferdinand is uneasy disclosing this information. He has a letter sent to his employer, Councilor Brand, making sure that the letter will only be read by Brand rather than his daughter Mariane. The next day both Brand and Mariane arrive, and it quickly becomes clear that not only does she have as passionate a temperament as Ferdinand, but that they pair are in love. Ferdinand is nursed back to health by Mariane and Mr. von L.’s wife, and a great friendship grows between them. Ferdinand returns home, and Mr. von L. leads an offensive against the bandits in the nearby forest. As the wedding date of Ferdinand and Mariane draws close, Ferdinand continues to blame himself for Heinrich’s death, and on the day before the wedding Ferdinand presents himself to Mr. von L. and confesses that he murdered Heinrich. Ferdinand says that they had quarreled—Ferdinand needed money for a commercial venture so that he would have enough money to marry Mariane, and Heinrich would not lend it to him—and then wrestled, and Ferdinand’s gun had gone off in the struggle and killed Heinrich. Horrified, Ferdinand threw the gun over the side of a bridge and then ran to report the murder.
In the legal system of the area of Germany in which “The Caliber” takes place, a confession is the end of a trial, so Ferdinand’s voluntary confession, which matches the facts as far as they are known, condemns him. Mr. von L. tries to persuade Ferdinand that the murder was accidental and not deliberate, but Ferdinand will have none of it. Mr. von L. and Mariane hire a good lawyer, Doctor Rebhahn, to defend Ferdinand, and he does his best, but the judges rule that despite the circumstantial evidence, if Ferdinand persists in his confession, he must be executed. Ferdinand is insistent that justice has been served and that he deserves the sentence. Mr. von L. and Doctor Rebhahn try any number of delaying tactics to prolong the execution, and eventually Ferdinand’s gun is found. After examining it Doctor Rebhahn discovers that one barrel is empty and one barrel has two bullets in it, which means that Ferdinand accidentally loaded two bullets into one chamber and could not have shot Heinrich. An examination of the bullet which killed Heinrich proves this; it is too big to fit into one of the chambers of Ferdinand’s pistol. In the face of this evidence Ferdinand continues to insist that he killed Heinrich, seeing Doctor Rebhahn and Mr. von L. as sent by the devil to torment him. The judges refuse to free Ferdinand, since he has confessed to the crime. But eventually the real murderer is found, a bandit who admits to having shot Heinrich. The bullets from the bandit’s rifle match the bullet that killed Heinrich. Mariane confronts Ferdinand with the evidence, and he eventually agrees that he is not a murderer. They marry and move to Philadelphia.
“The Caliber” is a Proto-Mystery. Most American and English fans of mysteries and detective stories are unaware of it, but there was a substantial amount of crime stories printed in the German-speaking countries in the nineteenth century. Most of these kriminalgeschichte (“criminal stories”) have never been translated into English, which partially explains their obscurity in England and America. But within German scholarship on detective fiction the kriminalgeschichte are properly acknowledged.
“The Caliber” is generally regarded as the first true detective story in the German language.1 It precedes Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by thirteen years (see: The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries). Modern readers will recognize “The Caliber” as a mystery. It is much closer to what is currently thought of as a mystery than von Droste-Hülshoff’s The Jew’s Beech-Tree. Müllner focuses on the crime and its solution much more than von Droste-Hülshoff did. “The Caliber” is also the first mystery story in which the caliber of a gun is the key to a crime. But “The Caliber” is inferior as a story to The Jew’s Beech-Tree. Mr. von L. is as colorless as von Droste-Hülshoff’s Baron von S. and like him is not truly responsible for the resolution of the mystery. Von Droste-Hülshoff’s emphasis on the life and psychology of the criminal is more absorbing reading than Müllner’s crime plot. And Ferdinand is too much the high-strung Romantic hero to engage the reader’s sympathies or affection.
The English-language world of letters knows relatively little about the history of German detective fiction, undoubtedly because so little of it was translated into English before the latter part of the twentieth century. “The Caliber” was as revolutionary to German literature as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was to American literature–as revolutionary, but far more immediately influential. Within a dozen years after “The Caliber”’s publication, there were enough crime stories written that “the analysis of physical clues of a crime had emerged...as the logical focus of a narrative of detection.”2 Müllner, Otto Ludwig (1813-1865), and other nineteenth-century authors from German-speaking Europe “were crime writing pioneers: influenced by romanticism, the Enlightenment and manifold legal advances in the German-speaking world, they developed the detective story ahead of both America and Britain.”3 By 1870, there were German crime fiction bestsellers–bestsellers that were specifically mystery novels, unlike their English Proto-Mystery counterparts of the time (see: Bleak House and The Woman in White). By 1890, when the influence of Sherlock Holmes began to be felt (see: The Detective Dagobert Mysteries) there were professional mystery writers, male and female, and crime stories and mysteries were a popular and profitable subgenre for national German publishers.
“The Caliber” is mainly of interest now as a historical artifact, but those interested in reading a pre-Poe Proto-Mystery should search it out.
Print: Mary W. Tannert and Henry Kratz, eds., Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction. An Anthology. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999.
Online: https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Der_Kaliber (In German; there is no English-language version of the story available online).
For Further Research
Katharina Hall, ed. Crime Fiction in German: Der Krimi. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2017.
1 Mary W. Tannert and Henry Kratz, eds., Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction. An Anthology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999), 9.
2 Tannert and Kratz, Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction, 54.
3 Katharina Hall, ed., Crime Fiction in German: Der Krimi (Cardiff: University of Wales, 2017), 14.