“Who Wrote the First Whodunit?” (by Steven Saylor)

Steven Saylor’s first novel, Roman Blood, introduced Gordianus the Finder, a private detective, of sorts, in ancient Rome. The critically acclaimed Roma Sub Rosa series now numbers a dozen novels, including two recent prequels about the younger days of Gordianus, who travels far beyond Rome to see The Seven Wonders (Minotaur 2013) and to rescue his beloved from the Raiders of the Nile (Minotaur 2014). Steven has also written numerous short stories about Gordianus, many of which first appeared in EQMM—including the very first, “A Will Is a Way” (March 1992), which won the Robert L. Fish Memorial Award for best first mystery short story. Steven tells us that his insatiable curiosity about the past recently put him on the trail to find the first whodunit ever written, and that this post grew out of a talk he delivered in June 2014 at the conference “From I, Claudius to Private Eyes: The Ancient World and Popular Fiction” at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. I found his discoveries so fascinating that now I’m wondering when the first private detective (according to the Private Eye Writers of America “a person paid for investigative work but not employed for that work by a unit of government”) appeared in fiction—something that might reflect interestingly on Gordianus, who is surely one of the most notable sleuths to be found in the pages of historical fiction being written today.—Janet Hutchings

Where do we find the earliest beginnings of the mystery story in literature, and who wrote the first whodunit? The answer lies further back than Arthur Conan Doyle, or Wilkie Collins, or even Edgar Allan Poe, who often receives credit as father of the genre. Much further back.

One of the first authorities to investigate this question about precursors was Dorothy Sayers. In the introduction to her landmark anthology The Omnibus of Crime (1929), Sayers identified a short list of what she called the “primitives” of the genre.

From ancient Roman literature Sayers cited the story of Hercules and Cacus. Driving his cattle along the Tiber River, Hercules stopped to take a nap. While he slept, the monster Cacus emerged from his cave in the Palatine Hill and nabbed some of the herd. When Hercules awoke, he counted the cattle and realized some were missing. He followed the tracks of the missing animals, reached a place where the hoofprints abruptly stopped, and was baffled. In fact, the clever Cacus had led the cattle in that direction then dragged them by their tails backward into his cave. Hercules—no great detective, obviously—was stumped until he heard the mooing of the missing cattle, located the cave, and killed the thief.

Sayers cited this story because the villain’s scheme hinged on what she called the “fabrication of false clues”—the hoofprints that led nowhere. What we have here is not a full-fledged murder mystery, but only a rudimentary element of crime fiction making perhaps its first appearance as a literary device. How old is the story? Though set in a prehistoric, mythical past, our earliest examples of the tale (such as the one in Vergil’s Aeneid) date from the first century B.C.; the great historian of Roman religion Georges Dumézil avers that “the legend of the rather unfriendly meeting of Hercules and Cacus was certainly not very old when Virgil reinforced it by his art.”

Going back a bit further, from Jewish literature Sayers cited two stories about the Biblical hero Daniel. One is the oft-painted story of Susanna and the elders. Two randy elders spy on Susanna while she bathes naked in a pool; aroused, the old goats accost her and demand she have sex with them, or else they’ll say she was meeting a lover. Susanna refuses, and the elders accuse her of adultery. Things look bad for the bathing beauty until Daniel comes to her rescue. He insists that the elders be questioned separately, and sure enough, their differing versions don’t add up. Exposed as liars and false accusers, the elders are put to death, and Susanna is vindicated. Sayers cited this as the first use of “analysis of testimony.”

Daniel also put his detecting skills to work to expose some idol-worshipping priests. Each night a great feast was set out for the idol Bel, the sanctum was sealed, and in the morning all the food was gone, apparently eaten by Bel. One day, just before the room was locked for the night, Daniel lingered behind and surreptitiously scattered ashes on the floor. The next morning, the footsteps of the charlatan priests could clearly be seen; they had been entering by a secret door at night and consuming the feast themselves. Sayers cited this as the first use of “analysis of material evidence.” Clearly, this Daniel was a clever fellow; we might even call him a detective (if not a solver of murders), and see in the story of Bel an ancestor of the locked-room mystery.

The date of these Daniel stories? Though they’re set in the time of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity (around 600 B.C.), the written stories (in Greek, found in what Protestants call the Apocrypha) date from the second to the first century B.C.—only a little before the tale of Hercules v. Cacus.

Delving yet further back in time, from ancient Greek literature Sayers cited Herodotus, the Father of History, and his tale about King Rhampsinitus of Egypt and a thief who repeatedly robbed the king’s treasure house. I don’t think I’ll give away the exact plot, since I wrote my own version, imagining this as the type of story my Roman sleuth, Gordianus the Finder, would have enjoyed hearing. (That story, “The Tale of the Treasure House,” is in the Roma Sub Rosa collection The House of the Vestals.) Suffice to say, the story has elements of a locked-room mystery, plus a duel of wits between the king and the clever thief, a precursor to the suave Raffles. Sayers cited Herodotus’s story as an example of “psychological method of detection: plot and counterplot.” This tale is the oldest yet, since the Histories of Herodotus are dated to 450-420 B.C.

And there Sayers left the matter of the “primitives.”

A little more that twenty years later, in 1951, Ellery Queen, in Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story, cited the same examples from ancient literature, calling them the “incunables” of mystery fiction. (Incunabula: the earliest stages or first traces of anything; from an ancient Latin word for the straps holding a baby in a cradle).

Cover of Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story (1951)

Cover of Queen’s Quorum: A History of the Detective-Crime Short Story (1951)

Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee, the writing team known as Ellery Queen, were surely experts on all things to do with crime fiction, but their chronology for these “incunables” was a bit off the mark. Apparently assuming that anything Biblical must predate Hercules or Herodotus, they claimed that “the detective-crime-and-mystery story, like so many other forms of literature, had its genesis in the Bible . . . . The first detective . . . made his debut in the Apocryphal Scriptures [citing the stories about Daniel related above]. . . . The course of incunabular detection, having originated in ancient Hebrew literature, can next be traced through ancient Greek and Latin [citing Herodotus’ story of King Rhampsinitus and Virgil’s version of Hercules v. Cacus].”

As we have seen, the correct order for the writing of these stories, beginning with the oldest, runs 1) Rhampsinitus and the thief, 2) Daniel (exposing Bel and saving Susanna), 3) Hercules v. Cacus. If we’re talking about the setting of the stories, then the oldest would be Rhampsinitus (set in pre-Khufu Egypt), then Hercules v. Cacus (set before the founding of Rome), then the Daniel stories (set in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar).

As for the claim that Daniel was the first detective in literature, both Ellery Queen and Dorothy Sayers (surprisingly, since her Oxford education surely included the Classics) completely overlooked another candidate: Oedipus, King of Thebes.

The famous play by Sophocles that recounts the tragedy of Oedipus was first performed in Athens around 429 B.C.—centuries before those “incunables” about Daniel or Hercules were written, and perhaps even before Herodotus set down the tale of Rhampsinitus. Written fragments of the Oedipus story date back even further, to the very dawn of ancient literature, including snippets from Hesiod and Homer.

Not only is it likely that Sophocles’ Oedipus is the oldest of all the “primitives” or “incunables” cited here, it’s also a full-blown murder mystery with all the elements familiar to modern readers—a murderer, a victim, an eye-witness, and a detective who keeps delving for the truth until he’s opened the Pandora’s box of everyone’s shameful secrets.

I’m not the first to make this connection. The earliest such reference I’ve found is from a 1965 issue of The Tulane Drama Review, in which the Greek director and translator Marios Ploritis complained that another scholar was “obviously influenced by the old, ludicrous conception that Oedipus is the first detective story ever written.” Note that Ploritis called this an “old” idea even in 1965—though Oedipus wasn’t cited by either Sayers (in 1929) or Ellery Queen (in 1951). Ploritis also called it a “ludicrous” idea, but there he was dead wrong.

As the play begins, the city of Thebes is in the grip of a devastating plague. The only way to stop the plague is to discover who killed the previous king. It falls to the current king, Oedipus, to solve the crime.

But wait—how did Oedipus become king? Arriving in Thebes as a lone wanderer, he ended a previous plague by solving the famous riddle of the Sphinx (already showing off his mystery-solving skills); the grateful Thebans made him king to fill the vacancy left by the recently murdered King Laius. Oedipus even married the king’s widow, Jocasta. (We might call her a cougar, but the ruder MILF would be more accurate.)

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

As Oedipus proceeds to investigate the crime, the meticulous plot construction by Sophocles feeds us one bit of evidence after another, letting us know just enough to keep us (and Oedipus) guessing, right up until the moment when, with a gasp, everyone on stage and in the audience realizes that . . .




. . . the killer of Laius was none other than Oedipus himself—and Laius was his father. The ramifications of this revelation drive Jocasta to commit suicide and Oedipus to blind himself.

The ancient Greeks knew that Sophocles had pulled off something special. Aristotle in his Poetics gave Oedipus a rave review: “Of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means. Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles. . . . These recognitions alone dispense with the artificial aid of tokens or amulets.” In other words, the reveals in Oedipus come not by pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but from step-by-step detective work, and are all the more powerful for being arrived at by a process of inevitable deduction.

Had Sophocles told the story in linear fashion, we would have seen the murder first and then the aftermath, knowing all along whodunit. Instead, he began at the end of the story and constructed a fully-realized murder mystery plot, working, so far as we know, from no previous template. Not only did Sophocles invent the whodunit; he was also the first to subvert the genre, even as he created it, by making the detective and the killer the same person. (As king, Oedipus is also judge and jury, exacting punishment for the crime.)

Twenty-five hundred years later, the first whodunit still ranks among the greatest ever written.

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10 Responses to “Who Wrote the First Whodunit?” (by Steven Saylor)

  1. Douglas Greene says:

    It has been eons since I read it, but I recall that some of the stories within Apuleius’ THE GOLDEN ASS have detective elements.

  2. Hayford Peirce says:

    A very interesting article indeed — I confess that I had never head of the Oedipus theory before. It certainly makes sense!

    There is an obvious error about the illustration for the dust cover of Queen’s Quorum: the date of the book is 1951 — if you look at the names of Ellery Queen novels shown on the dust jacket there are two or three that were written well after that date: The Finishing Stoke, for one, On the Eighth Day, for another. This must be a revised, updated edition. I found an online bookseller selling an edition that contains many books published after 1951….

  3. Jon L. Breen says:

    I saw a college production of Oedipus about forty years ago, and it certainly struck me that the play was structured as a detective story. It is surprising Queen and Sayers didn’t mention it. My theory is that, as with DRACULA and DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, both of which have a detective story structure, no one thinks of them that way because these years later everybody knows the solution. Great to hear there’s more Gordianus to come!

  4. Ed Sikov says:

    The story of Susannah and the Elders is celebrated in PSYCHO by way of the painting Norman Bates removes from the wall in order to spy on Marion Crane.

  5. loni03 says:

    illyrian movie where is

  6. loni03 says:

    why not make a movie for the Illyrians what the problem is !????

  7. loni03 says:

    Illyrians were also important civilization and culture in Southeast Europe and was people with fighters in southeastern Europe where top Rome ruled King Pyrrhus- but not for the Illyrians realization film art film world becomes truly ignorant bugs , This is the opinion of not only mine but of millions of people

  8. Carlos Mota says:

    I just finished “Empire”. What a book! May we see Steve writing about Marcus Aurelius (at least)?

    • Carlos Mota says:

      Sorry: I mean “Steven” not “Steve”. Please excuse me. Thanks.

    • stevensaylor says:

      Thanks for the encouraging words, Carlos. Yes, I will be writing about Marcus Aurelius in my next book, taking the Roma-Empire family saga up to Constantine the Great. I am an avid ready of the Meditations, finding more and more comfort in Stoicism as I get older.

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