The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Joseph Müller Mysteries (1890-1922)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Joseph Müller Mysteries–eighteen short stories, novellas, and novels–were written by Auguste Gröner and first appeared in “The Mysteries of New Year’s Eve” (original: “Das Geheimnis der Sylversternacht,” 1890). Gröner (1850-1929) was a Viennese journalist who turned to detective fiction at age thirty-nine and began publishing widely in the genre, although she published adventure novels for young adults as well and even founded a magazine for young adult fiction and become the head of a publishing line of young adult novels.
Joseph Müller is a policeman in Vienna. As a teenager he committed some minor crimes and gained a bad reputation. But he has a passion for justice and joins the police force as an adult. Because of his criminal past he could not advance far in the police hierarchy, but this does not bother him overly much, because his position as a detective allows him to investigate and solve crimes which a police commissioner would never be bothered with. Müller is so passionate about helping the weak and bringing criminals to justice that he is completely unable to tailor his statements and actions to please his superior on the police force. Müller also has a great deal of compassion for criminals driven to crime because of frustrated passion, social injustices, or sheer poverty. Müller always wants bad men caught and brought to justice, but if a criminal has committed a crime for what Müller thinks are understandable reasons, Müller will warn the criminal before he comes to arrest them, or will let them go once he has found them, though always with the understanding that they will do whatever is necessary to rectify the crimes they committed. Müller’s temper and his compassion for criminals eventually gets him fired. But he is left a sum of money by man who murdered his wife’s lover—Müller caught the man and then released him, with the understanding that the murderer will then go home and commit suicide in a civilized manner, rather than undergoing the indignity of arrest, torture, trial, imprisonment, and execution—and Müller uses this money to open a consulting detective agency in Vienna. He remains on good relations with the police, and they often consult him on particularly difficult cases. In later cases Gröner altered the continuity of the stories, so that Müller became an agent of the secret police. Muller's personal code also changed from the traditional European code of honor, in which the nobility are given much more latitude to spare themselves public humiliation than the poor and working class ever are, to a more American one-justice-for-all ethos.
One of the Joseph Müller novels strays into realm of fantastika. In Mene Tekel, a Tale of Strange Happenings (original: Mene Tekel...Eine seltsame Geschichte, 1910), Müller, “the great Swedish scientist” Professor Clusius, and “the great scholar” Lord Tannemore travel to the Near East to prove that two tablets sold to the British Museum are false. The tablets have a previously unknown variety of hieratic writing on them, and only Tannemore believes that the tablets are fakes. Müller, who has been called in by Scotland Yard to handle the case, accompanies Clusius and Tannemore through Beirut, Palmyra, and Baghdad and after much adventure Tannemore proves that the tablets are fake. The novel’s fantastika springs from Clusius' discovery of a technique that recaptures light that hit objects in the past, so that Clusius can replay images from the past. Clusius does this in the hidden throne room of the kings of Babylon and sees the flaming writing on the wall: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin (Daniel 5:25).
Joseph Müller is a typical example of the influence of The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries and the Great Detective character type on European detective fiction. Kriminalgeschichte, stories about crime and detection, appeared in Germany in the early 1820s (see: Detectives, The Jew’s Beech-Tree), almost twenty years before Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries, and were more popular and widespread in Germany during the nineteenth century than detective stories were in England, France, or America (see: Detectives). The detective genre began to cohere in Germany between 1860 and 1880, at which time the fictional detectives began to imitate the Great Detective characters of England (see: Bleak House, The Woman in White) and France (see: The Lerouge Affair). Traditionally, however, the German detective was a member of the police force, an inspector or superintendent. It was only with the appearance, in the 1890s, in Germany of Sherlock Holmes that the Great Detective character in German detective fiction became an amateur.
Joseph Müller is part of the Great Detective tradition. His past is similar to Eugène François Vidocq’s (see: The Great Detective), and his role on the police force is that of Gaboriau’s Lecoq’s (see: The Lerouge Affair), but when he opens his own investigative practice he is imitating Holmes rather than any other Great Detective predecessor. This change occurred throughout Europe, America, and Asia as Holmes’ influence grew (see: The Great Detective). Müller is, like the other Great Detectives, brilliant, a natural detective who exults in the chase. But, uniquely for nineteenth century Great Detectives, Müller’s abiding character trait is not his talent for detection, but rather his compassion and empathy. Unfortunately, few twentieth century characters, and fewer Great Detectives, would emulate Gröner’s model, and instead stressed brilliance over compassion.
Gröner is credited with having created the first series hero in German detective fiction. Joseph Müller’s popularity was such that, at the height of Auguste Gröner’s career, she was more popular among German-language readers than Arthur Conan Doyle, and translation of the Müller adventures into several languages, including English, were financially and critically successful.
Auguste Gröner’s Joseph Müller stories are entertaining late-Victorian mysteries. Unfortunately, most of the translations of them were done early in the twentieth century, and show their age; a modern and authoritative translation is needed.
Print: Auguste Gröner, Joe Muller, Detective: Being the Account of Some Adventures in the Professional Experience of a Member of the Imperial Austrian Police, transl. Grace Isabel Colbron. London: Forgotten Books, 2018.
For Further Research
Mary W. Tannert and Henry Kratz, ed, Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction: An Anthology (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999).