Guest Post: B.K. Stevens

Modern Mysteries–Classic Roots

Not long ago, I read Euripides’s Hecuba for the first time. About halfway through, some familiar elements began showing up.  “What do you know?” I thought. “It’s a detective story.”

True, this ancient Greek tragedy doesn’t exactly cut it as a whodunit: The play opens with a visit from the victim’s ghost, who helpfully tells the audience just when, why, and by whom he was murdered. But when his body is found and his mother, Hecuba, wants to confirm her suspicions, she uses tactics all mystery readers will recognize. Greeting the suspected murderer as her “dear friend,” Hecuba asks him a series of pointed questions. Polymestor thinks he’s cleverly hiding the truth, but when he declares he recently saw her son alive and well, Hecuba knows she’s found the killer. After she takes her revenge, we get another kind of scene found in many mysteries—the courtroom drama. Both Hecuba and the blinded Polymestor plead their cases in front of Agamemnon, who, acting as judge, declares Hecuba’s actions justified and imposes further punishment on the murderer.

Stumbling across these mystery elements in Hecuba got me thinking. How far back do our genre’s roots go? How many characteristics of modern mysteries can be traced to classic literary works?

Well, there’s Oedipus the King. This play does qualify as a whodunit—not a terribly mysterious one, true, since everybody in Sophocles’s audience knew the ancient story of Oedipus long before heading to the theater. Nevertheless, Sophocles builds tension by portraying Oedipus as a determined detective, interrogating suspects and examining evidence as he attempts to find out who killed King Laius. In a final plot twist even Agatha Christie would envy, Oedipus faces the horrible truth: In the words of the blind prophet, Teiresias, “You yourself are the killer you seek.” Other Greek plays also center on murder, and on bringing murderers to justice. In the various plays about the Orestes legend, for example, Agamemnon returns from Troy only to be murdered by his wife and the lover she’s acquired in his absence. It is then up to Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, and his sister Electra to avenge their father’s death by conspiring to kill their mother and stepfather. Talk about malice domestic!

When we turn from ancient Greece to ancient Israel, we don’t have to wait long to find crime stories, ones that feature a highly distinguished detective. After eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge, Adam and Eve do what many criminals in modern mysteries do: They hide and deny their guilt. With God as the detective, this approach does not work well. When Adam claims he’s hiding because he’s embarrassed about being naked, God promptly spots the holes in his story: “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” More typical criminal behavior follows: Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the snake. Unfortunately for them, they’re appearing before a Judge who doesn’t have much tolerance for excuses.

So the story of the first two human beings is a story of crime, detection, and judgment—the same elements central to mysteries written today. Of course, many mystery fans feel that, with the possible exception of Gaudy Night, the most satisfying mysteries focus specifically on the crime of murder. For murder, we have to wait until the next chapter of Genesis, when the third person to exist on the planet, Cain, murders the fourth person to exist on the planet, Abel. Once again, God is the detective—asking Cain where his brother is, not falling for Cain’s glib assertion that he doesn’t know, stepping into the role of judge to impose a punishment that fits the crime.

It’s not, however, a role God relishes. Still in the early pages of Genesis, he delegates it to humans. After the flood, God gives Noah and his family a rudimentary moral code—just a few rules, in contrast to the many commandments that come in later books of the Bible, but one of these rules demands that human beings punish murderers. There must be a “reckoning” for every human life taken, God declares: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” So the job of bringing murderers to justice passes from God to humans.  The protagonists of modern mysteries accept that job willingly—and can cite the highest authority for doing so.

But the job is tougher for humans than it was for God. We can’t instantly tell when someone is lying, and we can’t rely on the sorts of evidence God uses to convict Cain—“Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” So, in most cases, one human can’t do the job alone. We need police, lawyers, judges—and, sometimes, clever private detectives, resourceful amateur sleuths, and other sorts of justice-seeking characters found in modern mysteries.

The rabbis of the Talmud used God’s words to Noah as the primary basis of what is known as the Noahide Code, the seven laws non-Jews must follow to earn a share in the world to come. One of those laws, naturally, prohibits murder; another mandates setting up a system of justice. I find it interesting that two of the seven laws the rabbis saw as central to ethical human life are also central to the modern mystery. (A third Noahide law prohibits stealing, which also plays a role in many mysteries, and a fourth law regards sexual immorality, which often contributes to motive.) So when snooty sorts shrug off mysteries as trivial entertainment, we can confidently assert that, on the contrary, mysteries focus on some of our most important responsibilities as human beings.

Shakespeare certainly didn’t consider the subject matter of mysteries trivial. Hamlet comes to mind most readily. After resolving to uncover the truth about his father’s death, Hamlet hides his intentions by pretending to be insane, thereby setting an example for later detectives, right down to Lieutenant Columbo, who throw suspects off by playing dumb.  Hamlet also stages a play-within-a-play that comes so close to recreating his father’s murder that Claudius runs from the room. How many modern fictional detectives have used similar psychological ploys to lure killers into revealing their guilt?

Othello also tries to play detective, but his investigation goes tragically wrong. “I’ll have some proof” before believing Desdemona is unfaithful, Othello says. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake of saying it to Iago. Now we have another character type found in many modern mysteries, the false ally who undermines the detective while pretending to help. Iago provides proof, all right—a seemingly incriminating handkerchief, an overheard conversation—but manipulates the evidence to lead Othello to the wrong conclusion.

Other Shakespearian tragedies—Macbeth, for example—also have murders and the attempt to establish the truth about murders at their centers. In Shakespeare’s history plays, we find more elements of modern mysteries and thrillers: conspiracies, betrayals, political assassinations, doubts about who can be trusted. Richard III provides an especially chilling portrait of a murderer—ruthless, shrewd, driven not only by political ambition but also by pains and resentments stretching back to childhood. He’d be right at home in a modern psychological thriller, and he provides solid proof that Shakespeare, like many modern mystery writers, finds the connections between abnormal psychology and crime fascinating. (It seems wrong to mention Richard III without also mentioning Josephine Tey’s wonderful The Daughter of Time, which re-investigates the case of the murdered princes and finds Richard innocent.)

Even some of Shakespeare’s comedies could be considered crime fiction. In many ways, Much Ado about Nothing feels like the comic flip side of Othello. Once again, a military leader with a strong sense of honor (in this case, Claudio) falls in love with an innocent young woman (in this case, Hero) but rejects her as unfaithful because he’s misled by false evidence planted by a cunning, remorseless villain (in this case, Don John). The only thing that keeps the story from turning tragic is the arrival of Dogberry and his crew of inept but well-intentioned police officers, who stumble across evidence of Don John’s scheme and reveal it just in time to let the play end with weddings, not funerals. Today’s mystery readers know good detective work can make the difference between tragedy and comedy; evidently, Shakespeare agrees. And Dogberry and his helpers set the pattern for the cops and constables we meet in countless mysteries, from Sherlock Holmes sagas to private eye narratives to current cozies. Even when they’re too dim to understand what’s really going on, these clueless officers often play a crucial role.

It’s tempting to look ahead a century or so, to the various contenders for the distinction of being the first real novel written in English. We’d find plenty of crime, plenty of mystery—from Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which tells the story of an accomplished thief and borderline prostitute; to Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, which center on rape or attempted rape; to Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, a fictionalized account of a real-life thief, or his Tom Jones, which features a number of crimes and the central mystery of the truth about Tom’s birth. P.D. James has argued persuasively that Austen’s Emma is essentially detective fiction; at least one literary critic thinks Brontë’s Jane Eyre is the first real mystery novel; and crime is a central element in several Dickens novels, not only The Mystery of Edwin Drood but also Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and others. On the other side of the Atlantic, Hawthorne explores crime, secret sins, and guilt in works such as The House of the Seven Gables, Melville paints a sympathetic portrait of an accidental killer in Billy Budd, and Poe gives the mystery a distinctive form.

But perhaps such works are too recent to be considered “classic” in the full sense. Perhaps it’s best to stop with Shakespeare. It seems clear, at any rate, that mysteries are not a fad, that their popularity does not stem from the corrupt, morbid taste of contemporary readers. Literary works that have survived for centuries—in some cases, for millennia—tell us people have always been fascinated by mysteries, wanted to understand more about the criminal mind, and recognized the importance of detecting crime and bringing the guilty to justice. So the roots of the modern mystery go very deep indeed—to some of our earliest literary works, and to the essence of the human mind and heart.


B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens has published over forty short stories, most of them in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. A 2012 story, “Thea’s First Husband,” was nominated for an Agatha and has now been nominated for a Macavity as well; it also made the list of “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 2012” in Best American Mystery Stories 2013.  One Shot, a satirical e-novella from Untreed Reads, takes on issues ranging from gun control to reality shows. Awards include a 2010 Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and first place in a suspense-writing contest judged by Mary Higgins Clark. A long-time English professor, B.K. has also published three non-fiction books, along with articles in The Writer and The Third Degree. She and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia.


5 thoughts on “Guest Post: B.K. Stevens”

  1. Love. This. Thanks so much!

    Sideways connection: was teaching Gertrude Stein yesterday and (as always) enjoying how she singles out/celebrates detective stories for putting the emphasis on the human mind in action…


  2. Dear Cynthia, Mary, Susan, and Gail–

    Thanks so much for your comments! I’ve been busy at Bouchercon (or actually, for most of the day, waiting for an often-delayed flight to finally take off so I could get to Bouchercon), so I haven’t been able to reply until now, but I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Mystery elements are so plentiful in classic literature that the hardest part about writing this post was deciding which ones to pick.


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