The First Detective Story

Susanna and the Elders by Domenichino 1603

By Elaine Viets

Sex, violence, perjury, crooked judges, blackmail – and police procedural techniques still used today. All these are in the first detective story.

So which one is it?

Some say the first detective story was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” way back in 1841. Wilkie Collins generally gets credit for the first detective novel, “The Moonstone,” in 1868. And others claim Metta Victoria Fuller wrote the first American detective novel, “The Dead Letter,” in 1866. After that, scholars slug it out until we get to the undisputed champion, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective, Sherlock Holmes, in 1887.

But I agree with M.T. Logan that the first detective story was published several thousand years earlier. It’s the story of Susanna and the Elders. If you’re Catholic or Greek Orthodox, Susannah is in the Book of Daniel and is considered divinely inspired. For Protestants and many other religions, the story is part of the Apocrypha, the books that didn’t quite make the cut.

Detail from Susanna and Elders by Tintoretto

Susanna was a young married Jewish woman, living in Babylon. She was God-fearing and good-looking. Susanna liked to walk in her husband’s orchard, and two old pervs – excuse me, two highly respected judges – liked to watch. They fell madly in lust with her, and conspired “when they might find her alone,” as the Good Book says. The old creeps lucked out.

On a hot day, Susanna decided to take a bath in the orchard. The two old men hid themselves and watched as she told her maids, “Bring me oil, and washing balls, and shut the doors of the orchard, that I may wash me.” As soon as the maids brought the things for Susanna’s bath, they shut the doors and left. Nobody knew that the two old degenerates were lurking in the orchard.

Once the doors were shut, the horny old coots cornered Susanna, and said she’d better have sex with them, or they would lie and say “that a young man was with thee, and therefore thou didst send away thy maids.”

Susanna realized she was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t, but she’d be damned if she’d have sex with those two creeps. “It is better for me to fall into your hands without doing it, then to sin in the sight of the Lord,” she said.

Susanna and Elders by Anthony van Dyck

Susanna screamed and the old blackmailers screamed, and there was a trial. The judges testified falsely against Susanna, claiming she was with a young stud under a tree, and they’d tried to stop this terrible sin of adultery. The young man got away, but the judges caught Susanna. “The multitude believed them, as being the elders, and the judges of the people, they condemned her to death.”
This was long before #MeToo, and while adultery was a sin for both sexes, it was a bigger sin for women. The patriarchs didn’t want free-range women begetting someone’s child.
Susanna called out to God, “I have done none of these things, which these men have maliciously forged against me.”
In stepped young Daniel, who said, “I am clear of the blood of this woman.”
He lectured the crowd for condemning Susanna “without examination or knowledge of the truth.”
He then conducted his investigation the way all good modern police officers do. He separated the two judges.
He asked the first judge under what tree did he see Susanna doing the wild thing with the young hunk. The judge said, “under a mastic tree.” That tree is where chewing gum comes from.
The second judge claimed Susanna did the deed under a holm tree, a type of oak.

Holm tree

The two lying judges had convicted themselves “by their own mouth.” They were killed.
So there you have it – a detective story with a victim, two villains, and a hero who knew how to search for the truth.
Just out! A STAR IS DEAD, my fourth Angela Richman mystery. Publishers Weekly calls it “skillfully plotted” and says it has “witty dialogue and well-defined characters.”
Buy it now:

This entry was posted in Writing by Elaine Viets. Bookmark the permalink.

About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

15 thoughts on “The First Detective Story

  1. Law students get this as an example of the essentiality of cross-examining witnesses…which is, along with the presumption of innocence, the most profound protection in our justice system.

    Cool, Elaine. Can be used in a detective novel or legal thriller!

  2. A long time ago (because I’m old), I recall a story of 4 college students who thought they’d go carousing the night before an exam. They figured they had plenty of time to get back, but as things had it, they were too drunk to function and missed the test. They claimed a flat tire had delayed them. The professor said they could take a make-up exam and put each of them in a room. The exam had one question.
    “Which tire?”
    Now I wonder where the idea for this little story came from.

  3. Thanks, Elaine. Great post.

    Off topic (just gotta share this):
    On Hoopla–Mandatory viewing for writers: A great send-up of writers who take themselves very seriously. The crime scene cleaner–guy who cleans up the blood etc after the police are through with the crime scene–interacts with a writer whose aunt was killed in his house. Very funny, especially for those of use who sling words onto the page hoping some pattern of meaning emerges. “The Crime Scene Cleaner” (Der Tatortreiniger), Season 1, Episode 2, “Traces.”

  4. Love this! All the nasty and heroic elements present in a thousand + year old manuscript.

    Now, if only the young Daniel would present himself *Ahem!* in this present age and rescue us from the liars with whom we have to do. 🙂

  5. I don’t have the time to date this Bible source and the Ancient Greek plays so I can’t say which is first but OEDIPUS REX by Sophocles was an early example of the murder mystery, cold case division. A surprising number of the early plays are the “first” of a type. For example, THE BIRDS by Aristophones can be considered the first science fiction story.

        • And there’s no connection between Hitchcock and Aristophanes’ stories. Here’s the Wiki version of the Greek plot: “The Birds (Greek: Ὄρνιθες Ornithes) is a comedy by the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. It was performed in 414 BC at the City Dionysia where it won second place. It has been acclaimed by modern critics as a perfectly realized fantasy remarkable for its mimicry of birds and for the gaiety of its songs.
          “The plot of the play revolves around Pisthetaerus, an Athenian who convinces the birds to create a great city in the sky, and thus regain their status as the original gods. Pisthetaerus eventually transforms into a bird-like god himself, and replaces Zeus as the king of the gods.”

Comments are closed.