Protomysteries: Precursors of Detective Fiction

This post contains extracts from proto-mysteries, predating Edgar Alan Poe’s Auguste Dupin stories, which popularized the genre. For an analysis of some of these sources (“The Three Princes of Serendip” and Zadig), tied into a history of story-telling and reading, see my essay “The Reading of Mystery and the Mystery of Reading.”

Susanna and the Elders

tiepolo_susanna_grt

Giovan Battista Tiepolo

The Book of Daniel, Chapter 13

As the story goes, a fair Hebrew wife named Susanna was falsely accused by lecherous voyeurs. As she bathes in her garden, having sent her attendants away, two lustful elders secretly observe the lovely Susanna. When she makes her way back to her house, they accost her, threatening to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them.

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The Reading of Mystery and the Mystery of Reading

Where do these tracks lead?

The trail comes out from under the trees, onto open savannas, where first we stood and began to follow animal traces with our eyes, reading signs and reconstructing stories of our prey. The path winds around a method of examination and interpretation of detail, which we might, in retrospect, call the art of detecting, modeled in a folk tale first known in the west as “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Next the trail moves upward through the scientific methodology and logic of Voltaire’s Zadig and reaches a summit in the technique of ratiocination in Edgar Allan Poe’s definitive mysteries. Eventually, the tracks continue across the screen and lead all the way to–

Well, I wouldn’t want to give it away.

By inviting the reader to participate in the resolution of the mystery, Poe established the genre. Taking advantage of the formal aspects of this type of tale, a tale of detection, which goads the reader into examining and interpreting detail, Poe was in effect encouraging close reading and even literary interpretation. For the art of detecting and the art of reading are so closely intertwined that we may call them the same act.

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