Critique of Criminal Reason by Michael Gregorio

St. MartinŐs 2006  395 pp.

Copyright Š Steven E. Alford


In 1804, Napoleon was threatening the citizens of Prussia with his violently megalomaniacal vision.  In February of that year, Magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis was summoned from his east Prussian village of Lotingen to Kšnigsberg to investigate a series of grisly murders plaguing the quiet town.  Unbeknownst to him, the man summoning him was the most famous man in Kšnigsberg, indeed, one of the most famous men in German history, the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Thus begins an intriguing historical murder mystery that pits reason against passion, scientific investigation against spiritual revelation, and the reader against the mystery-spinning powers of the author, Michael Gregorio.

Stiffeniis, a bourgeois family man whose confidence in his own powers outstrips his true abilities, plays Watson to KantŐs Holmes.  Kant, world-famous since the 1780s for his publication of his three magisterial Critiques—of Reason, Understanding, and Judgment—has settled into what seems to be an obscure dotage, waited on by his servant and widows around town.  Still, he remains revered, owing to Ňhis precise way of thinking, the regularity of his habits, the stern morality of his temperament, the impeccable elegance of his dress.  Not a hair out of place, not a word out of turn, not a spot on his reputation.Ó

Kant, whose vast intellectual edifice would find itself attacked by the tides of Romanticism, followed by the tsunami of Hegel, rooted his thought in the Ňfundamental thesis that the moral nature of duty makes human behavior subject to universal laws which are based on precepts of Rationality.  All action should strive, he averted, towards a common Good which represents true Freedom.Ó  ManŐs very being, Kant asserted, is constituted by his rationality.

Stiffeniis himself brings Reason into the investigation of four unexplained and seemingly unrelated deaths, striving to piece together connections between the murders, despite a credulous populace and inept police work.

Kšnigsberg was populated by Pietists, who Ňbelieved that eternal salvation could only be achieved by personally wrestling with the Devil and his temptations,Ó leading some of the more imaginative citizens to consider the Devil himself responsible for the murderous spree. 

The more sober inhabitants, their ears attuned to contemporary events, speculated that Revolutionary sympathizers, hoping to hasten NapoleonŐs victory over King Friedrich Wilhelm III, killed their opponents to further their own mad political plans. 

As the bodies begin to pile up, we learn that Stiffeniis was brought into the investigation by Kant owing to a remark he had made to the great man on the occasion of their first and only other meeting, seven years before:

ŇThere is one human experience equal to the unbridled power of Nature É the most diabolical of them all.  Cold-blooded murder.  Murder without a motive.Ó   Could the killer be preying on people for no reason at all?

If so, not only is the solution to the crimes made more difficult, KantŐs thought itself could be brought into question by Ňthe bent wood of the human soul.Ó Stiffeniis realizes, perhaps too late, that his investigation means more to Kant that the solution to any crime; the question of whodunit addresses the bedrock of KantŐs Enlightenment philosophical assumptions.

Like another popular intellectual murder mystery, The Name of the Rose, much of the drama rests on a seemingly missing text that may or may not be apocryphal.  The absolute gold standard of the philosophical murder mystery is Philip KerrŐs fabulous A Philosophical Investigation. While Gregorio is no Umberto Eco or Philip Kerr, he has a solid knowledge of the period, enlivened by ongoing touches of gothic horror.  KantŐs formidable and austere philosophical system is treated throughout with a light touch.  Readers who seek substance along with thrills in their mystery reading will enjoy The Critique of Criminal Reason.