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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Writing Assignment: Reading as a Detective

Background: After an introduction to literature, poetry, and the evolving genre of romance, we began following the development of mystery from the folktale “Three Princes of Seredip” and Voltaire’s Zadig, or the Book of Fate through Edgar Allan Poe’s crystallization of the detective story in his tales of rationcination, exemplified by “The Purloined Letter.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle further developed and popularized detective fiction in his Sherlock Holmes stories, such as “A Scandal in Bohemia.” We saw the gentleman detective turn into tough, morally complex character in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, then lost ourselves in the many twists of Ira Levin’s play Deathtrap. Throughout this unit, we have explored the connection between detective work and close reading, namely looking for clues and constructing meaning from those clues. Now it’s your turn to practice a bit of detective work on the mystery of your choice.

Goal: To interpret a mystery using techniques of close reading, exploring social issues of morality, class, gender, sexuality, and so on.

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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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