Contributions from the Classics

2012 has seen celebrations around the world of the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812—June 9, 1870). It had been my intention to blog about Dickens this week. He’s one of the great writers in history who influenced what would eventually become the crime and mystery genre—after all, he created one of the most memorable criminals in fiction, the receiver of stolen goods, Fagin (in Oliver Twist), and one of the first fictional detectives, Inspector Bucket of Bleak House.  Before I had finished gathering my own thoughts about Dickens, however, I happened on a blog by EQMM contributor Terrie Farley Moran that I think puts the case for Dickens being a precursor to modern crime writers better than I could. See Charles Dickens, Crime Writer at Criminal Element. EQMM will be marking the Dickens bicentenary in its November issue (on sale at the end of August) with a mystery by W. Edward Blain set in London’s Dickens House museum.

Dickens wasn’t the only classic European writer of the mid nineteenth century who contributed to the emergence of crime and mystery fiction. Born ten years earlier, on July 24, 1802, Alexandre Dumas, père created works with elements that can be found in both modern thrillers and the puzzle mysteries of our genre’s Golden Age. Dumas’s most famous novels—especially The Three Musketeers and its sequels Twenty Years After and The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later—are commonly described as historical romances, but if they had been written today, they would, I think, most often be shelved with “Thrillers.” This week, in New York City, the International Thriller Writers organization is holding its annual convention, which will include an awards banquet for the best work in the genre. A couple of years ago, I asked one of ITW’s members, EQMM writer Twist Phelan, one of the best modern practitioners of thriller writing, to define “thriller” so that we could determine which EQMM stories should be submitted for the awards. Most of her criteria could have come from an analysis of Dumas, they match his work so closely.  Here are a few of the characteristics she identified:

1) The hero is a member of a slightly superior social class or is otherwise distinguished from the common man.

2) The basic story is somewhat implausible; putting in a lot of facts about side issues makes the main plot seem more realistic.

3) There is danger to the hero, but also a danger to something greater than the hero; there’s always a higher cause (for example, preventing invasion of England, preventing an assassination that will have a worldwide effect).

4) The story is set in an interesting world (fancy lifestyle, foreign countries).

5) The hero must deal with authorities—there’s always a scene where the hero is contacted by someone in power (for example, the president, the prime minister, the head of the World Bank).

6) The villain is known early on; why he does what he does is disclosed over the course of the book (providing a psychological element).

And here are some of the ways these modern criteria apply to Dumas’s d’Artagnan Romances, as the books, collectively, are called.

1) D’Artagnan, hero of the series, is a nobleman by birth, but impoverished and forced to travel to Paris to make his way. His distinction from the common man is twofold: To his superior birth is added the uncommon intelligence and character required to succeed without the privileges of his class.

2) All of the d’Artagnan books are filled with implausibilities made palatable by a garnish of facts and realistic detail. Often the implausibility consists of characters coming together at improbable times and in unlikely places. D’Artagnan’s reunion with his former servant Planchet in Twenty Years After, for instance, comes when Planchet crashes through d’Artagnan’s window as part of the sequence of his escape from the soldiers of Cardinal Mazarin. But we are distracted from the near-impossibility of Planchet happening upon d’Artagnan’s window (of all the windows in Paris; the two had lost touch years before) by the relation of facts about the political situation in France at the time—the unrest of the aristocrats at the first minister’s attempt to limit their power and the populace’s near-revolt over taxes levied; the inability of the authorities to respond to a serious revolt; and details of the manipulation of the child king Louis XIV.

3) There is always danger to d’Artagnan: In The Three Musketeers, he’s pursued relentlessly by Cardinal Richelieu’s men.  But there is also danger to something (in that instance someone) greater than himself—the queen, who has given her jewels to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham, and will face exposure unless they are returned before Richelieu can prove her indiscretion to the king.  Overriding all of this is the greater cause of preventing Richelieu from starting a war with England.

4) The stories are set in an interesting world: a period of French history with colorful and important characters such as Cardinal Richelieu and Louis XIV.

5) The hero is contacted by someone in power: Perhaps the most memorable scene in which the hero of a d’Artagnan romance is enlisted by a powerful person is that in Twenty Years After in which Cardinal Mazarin, also the first minister of France, lures D’Artagnan to his cause, amidst an atmosphere of universal suspicion of his motives.

6) A classic case of the villain being clear from the beginning and his motives revealed over the course of the novel is that of Richelieu in The Three Musketeers (even if Dumas’s depiction of him as evil may not seem to everyone entirely justified by history).

In all of these respects, Dumas was creating books akin to modern thrillers. Yet I have not heard him spoken of in connection with the history of the thriller. I suspect that’s because the books, while they are vigorous fun, lack the most crucial element of all to earn classification as a thriller, and that is the prevalence of fear. As Twist Phelan put it in her answer to my question: “The predominant emotion of the characters in the [thriller] story is fear, and the predominant emotion in the reader is anxiety.”  Speaking for myself, the Dumas books are anything but anxiety inducing. For me, they are too much fun to be scary—romances in the old sense—escapades combined with interesting history and political intrigue. Nevertheless, Dumas must have influenced many subsequent writers who helped shape the thriller genre, for in him we find an early use of so many of the thriller’s key elements.

The same could be said of Dumas’s influence on the classical mystery. Earlier this year I received from EQMM translator John Pugmire two chapters from Dumas’s 1854 novel The Mohicans of Paris, in which a locked-room mystery is presented and solved. I did a little research and discovered that these chapters comprise one of the first locked-room mysteries to appear in literature (at least since ancient times), which should be enough in itself to make Dumas an important figure in the history of our genre, even if the solving of a mystery never took center stage in his books. (EQMM will be featuring those chapters from The Mohicans of Paris, by the way, in Passport to Crime early in 2013.)

Not only did Dumas create one of the first locked-room mysteries, in the last of the d’Artagnan novels, The Vicomte of Bragelonne, one scene has his hero acting in a very detective-like way.  See what you think: King Louis XIV has sent d’Artagnan to the Rond-point du Bois-Rochin, telling him only that a man has been wounded there and a horse is lying dead. D’Artagnan is to observe and report to the king his opinion on the matter.

On d’Artagnan’s return, this is the first part of their exchange:

“Well, monsieur,” he said, “do you bring me any news?”

“Yes, sire.”

“What have you seen?”

“As far as probability goes, sire—“ D’Artagnan began to reply.

“It was certainty I requested of you.”

“I will approach it as near as I possibly can. The weather was very well adapted for investigations of the character I have just made; it has been raining this evening, and the roads were wet and muddy—“

“Well, the result, M. d’Artagnan?”

 “Sire, your majesty told me that there was a horse lying dead in the cross-road of the Bois-Rochin, and I began, therefore, by studying the roads. I say the roads, because the center of the cross-road is reached by four separate roads. The one that I myself took was the only one that presented any fresh traces. Two horses had followed it side by side; their eight feet were marked very distinctly in the clay. One of the riders was more impatient than the other, for the footprints of the one were invariably in advance of the other about half a horse’s length.”

“Are you quite sure they were traveling together?” said the king.

 “Yes, sire. The horses are two rather large animals of equal pace—horses well used to maneuvers of all kinds, for they wheeled round the barrier of the Rond-point together.”

“Well—and after?”

“The two cavaliers paused there for a minute, no doubt to arrange the conditions of the engagement; the horses grew restless and impatient. One of the riders spoke, while the other listened and seemed to have contented himself by simply answering. His horse pawed the ground, which proves that his attention was so taken up by listening that he let the bridle fall from his hand.”

“A hostile meeting did take place then?”


“Continue; you are a very accurate observer.”

 “One of the two cavaliers remained where he was standing, the one, in fact, who had been listening; the other crossed the open space, and at the first placed himself directly opposite to his adversary. The one who had remained stationary traversed the Rond-point at a gallop, about two-thirds of its length, thinking that by this means he would gain upon his opponent; but the latter had followed the circumference of the wood.”

“You are ignorant of their names, I suppose?”

“Completely so, sire. Only he who followed the circumference of the wood was mounted on a black horse.”

“How do you know that?”

“I found a few hairs of his tail among the brambles which bordered the sides of the ditch.”

“Go on.”

“As for the other horse, there can be no trouble in describing him, since he was left dead on the field of battle.”

“What was the cause of his death?”

“A ball which had passed through his brain.”

“Was the ball that of a pistol or a gun?”

“It was a pistol-bullet, sire. Besides, the manner in which the horse was wounded explained to me the tactics of the man who had killed it.  He had followed the circumference of the wood in order to take his adversary in flank. Moreover, I followed his foot-tracks on the grass.”

“The tracks of the black horse, do you mean?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Go on, Monsieur d’Artagnan.”

“As your majesty now perceives the position of the two adversaries, I will, for a moment, leave the cavalier who had remained stationary for the one who started off at a gallop.”

“Do so.”

“The horse of the cavalier who rode at full speed was killed on the spot.”

“How do you know that?”

“The cavalier had not time even to throw himself off his horse, and so fell with it. I observed the impression of his leg, which, with a great effort, he was able to extricate from under the horse. The spur, pressed down by the weight of the animal, had plowed up the ground.”

 “Very good; and what did he do as soon as he rose up again?”

 “He walked straight up to his adversary.”

“Who still remained upon the verge of the forest?”

“Yes, sire. Then, having reached a favorable distance, he stopped firmly, for the impression of both his heels are left in the ground quite close to each other, fired, and missed his adversary.”

“How do you know he did not hit him?”

“I found a hat with a ball through it.”

“Ah, a proof, then!” exclaimed the king.

“Insufficient, sire,” replied d’Artagnan, coldly; “it is a hat without any letters indicating its ownership; without arms; a red feather as all hats have; the lace, even had nothing particular in it.”

“Did the man with the hat through which the bullet had passed fire a second time?”

“Oh, sire, he had already fired twice.”

“How did you ascertain that?”

“I found the waddings of the pistol.”

“And what became of the bullet which did not kill the horse?”

 “It cut in two the feather of the hat belonging to him against whom it was directed, and broke a small birch at the other end of the open glade.”

“In that case, then, the man on the black horse was disarmed, whilst his adversary had still one more shot to fire?”

“Sire, while the dismounted rider was extricating himself from his horse, the other was reloading his pistol. Only, he was much agitated while he was loading it, and his hand trembled greatly.”

“How do you know that?”

 “Half the charge fell to the ground, and he threw the ramrod aside, not having time to replace it in the pistol.”

 “Monsieur d’Artagnan, this is marvelous you tell me.”

“It is only close observation, sire, and the commonest highwayman could tell as much.”

There are several more pages in which d’Artagnan displays his detective skills in this episode, but I think that should suffice to convey what Dumas was doing.  And this was penned less than a decade after the first true detective story, by Poe, was published. Dumas is said to have been familiar with Poe’s work, but even so, this is, I think, a remarkable early example of detective writing.

When the International Thriller Writers announce the winners of the short story award this Saturday night, I’ll be thinking of EQMM’s two nominees—Tim L. Williams for the March/April 2011 EQMM story “Half-Lives” and Dave Zeltserman for the September/October 2011 EQMM story “A Hostage Situation.” I’ll also be thinking of Dumas, who contributed so much to what would become thriller writing—and to the detective story as well.

—Janet Hutchings

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One Response to Contributions from the Classics

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    I had no idea Dumas was such a detection pioneer. Another one, sort of, was Jane Austen, who although she certainly didn’t write crime novels often included a detective-novel-type summation of why the characters might have picked up on the relationship clues and understood a situation sooner than they did. The most striking example is probably EMMA, the discussion of which in P.D. James’s book on detective fiction tipped me off to this phenomenon, but it also occurs in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE when Elizabeth is reconsidering her view of Darcy.

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