What Was the First Detective Story?

The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe, published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841, is generally agreed to be the first detective story. And The Moonstone, a 19th-century British epistolary novel by Wilkie Collins, published eighteen years later in 1868, is generally considered the first detective novel. But as E.V. Lucas has the Bishop remark in his essay, “Motives and Murders,” The Art of the Mystery Story, 1946, 1974, 352-354):

Of course you all know the earliest form of detective story? No? You will find it in the Apocrypha—the story of Susanna and the Elders; its hero, Daniel, was the first detective.

The Aprocrypha are the biblical books that were part of the Greek version of the Old Testament but were not included in the Hebrew Bible. They’ve had quite a history. When Saint Jerome produced the late 4th-century Latin translation of the Bible called the Vulgate, the Apocryphal texts were included, and in the Catholic Bible they still remain. During the Reformation in the 16th century they were removed from the new Protestant Bible. Then in the 17th century, they were placed in an appendix of the King James Bible. They are also included in the Orthodox Bible. So you may or may not be familiar with the story of Susanna and the Elders. Here it is in brief.

Susanna is a beautiful, young wife and mother who lived in ancient Babylon. One day when it was very hot, she decides to bathe inside a walled in garden. Thinking that she is alone, she asks her maids to bring her ointments and strips down. Two men, both highly respected elders who had both been lusting after her, had previously concealed themselves in the garden to watch. When the maids leave, they reveal themselves to the horrified young woman and attempt to blackmail her into having sex with them. If she refuses, they tell her, they will both swear that they saw her having sex with a young man and that they tried to capture him, but were unfortunately overpowered and failed. Susanna refuses even though adultery is a crime punishable by death. The men testify against her. Susanna proclaims her innocence, but the men are much respected, and she is sentenced to death. Daniel, believing Susanna innocent, intercedes. He separates the elders so they can’t hear each other and asks each in turn to tell him what he saw. When their stories don’t match about where the lover’s tryst took place, Susanna is set free and the elders are condemned to death for bearing false witness.

Was this the first detective story? It has:

• a victim
• two villains
• a hero
• a search for the truth
• a technique still used by present-day detectives, and
• both villains are exposed by the hero and brought to justice.

What do you think?

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 11:16 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I had not read that in the past. Very interesting. The only thing that I can think of off the top of my head is when Benjamin (I think it was him, oh dear, I seem to have forgotten) anyway, he interrogates his brothers for their treachery when he was thrown in the pit before entering Egypt. Now he is in charge of the grain in Pharaoh’s household and his brothers don’t realize who he is. Of course he knew the truth and wasn’t a detective.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

    • Nancy,
      It was Joseph who was thrown into a pit by his brothers. But your point is well taken—Joseph did know the truth. And so he didn’t have to investigate when his brothers came before him years later when he was viceroy over Egypt. Joseph recognized them, even though they didn’t know he was their brother. He knew what they had done.

  2. Yes! Susanna and the Elders IS a detective story! Hmmmm…. Wonder if anyone has done a series with Daniel as the ‘tec.


  3. The story of Suzanna is a mystery story but does not meet the strict definition of a “detective story” because who done it is given away at the beginning—the reader is not given a chance to solve it.

    John LaCarna

    • John,

      I agree that the story of Suzanna is not a whodunit. But it is very like Columbo. In the latter, the viewer always knows who did it, but the delight is in discovering how Lt. Columbo will discover who did it and entrap the killer.

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