Red Chair Reads: The Case of the Lamp That Went Out

Augusta Groner (or Auguste Gröner, 1850-1929), the “mother” of Austrian women crime fiction writers, wrote a series of detective stories featuring the innocuous-looking Joseph Müller, Secret Service detective with the Imperial Austrian police.  These stories and novelettes were set in the last years of the Habsburg Empire, a twilight world of bureaucracy and hierarchy populated by people who clung to a moribund social and political order because to not do so would be to question everything they knew to be true.

A young maid discovers a dead man in the ditch on a quiet street in a respectable city neighborhood.  Though young and well-dressed, he had a face of dissipation . . . .  Perhaps he deserved to die after all.     The Case of the Lamp That Went Out was not much of a mystery, but then again, I did not read it for the story.  It is valuable for what it says about the ordinary men and women of late-imperial Austria, who went about their own business and believed that their lives were ones of law and order, presided over by a benignly powerful monarch who had been on the throne so long that he was indeed “the empire.”  In this world, even a debased gentleman understood that honour meant one sometimes had to pay with one’s life, and that the monarch, as distant as he was, was the ultimate source and expression of Austrian justice and clemency.  It is a portrait of an empire that should not have limped into the 20th century, let alone into the second half of the 19th century.

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