roots of the blossoming tree of crime fiction can be
traced back to the ancient soil of The Bible,
and beyond, in literature which contains mysteries to be
solved, and figures who act as detectives. Mystery was
present in Classical Greek tragedy. In Oedipus Rex
(c. 429 bc) the identity of Oedipus is a mystery, the
unravelling of which influences the movement of the plot.
In fact the very term 'anagnorisis' indicates a discovery
- a revealing of a mystery.
In the biblical era perhaps one of the earliest acts of 'detection'
took place when Herod killed all new-born babies on one
particular night in an attempt to eliminate the child
prophesied to ruin him. We have other examples of
detection prior to Christ too; the prophets, such as
Daniel, could interpret dreams. This was detection in the
sense that they had to interpret symbolic images to
understand their significance. In that sense the prophets
could be called 'investigators'. But these dreams were
very often interpreted in a visionary state of mind,
therefore detection in the strictest sense of the term
cannot be used here.
We have detection in the 12th century German epic Nibelungenlied
as well where Hagen, the minister of Brunhild's revenge
coaxes the secret of the vulnerable spot in Siegfried's
body from Kriemhild.
In Romantic fiction we see for the first time in European
literature, a systematic use of mystery in plotting. As A.
H. Clewer stated in his essay Modern Crime Fiction , 'the
early whodunit approach is perhaps related to mysteries
of identity in Romantic fiction. For example, in Scott's Ivanhoe
the identity of the Black Knight is mysterious, and its
eventual revelation forms an important element in the
plot. Keats uses a similar gambit in his tragedy Otho
The Great (1819) presumably influenced by Scott.
But the role of the investigator that we find in the
writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie,
Edgar Allan Poe and others probably entered into the
realm of fiction through Voltaire's Zadig (1748).
As John Drinkwater observed in The Outline of
Literature  'Zadig was a Sherlock Holmes
born before his time.' [See excerpt in Appendix].
If Voltaire had been born after Conan Doyle 'Zadig' might
have been taken as a parody of the great detective who
resided in Baker Street.
In Elizabethan drama the plot tends to move forward in
complex ways, but without any element of the mysterious.
There are no actual mysteries in Shakespeare's plots,
however complex they are. But although there is no real
mystery in the tragedies of Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd,
the figure of the investigator features prominently. In
Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy we have Hieronimo
taking up the role of the investigator to unravel the
mystery of his son's death, and in Hamlet,
Hamlet acts as an investigator to avenge his dead father.
However, there is a basic difference between the roles
that Hieronimo and Hamlet take up, and the investigator
that we find in modern crime fiction. While the
investigators in modern crime fiction choose detection as
a profession, the characters of Shakespeare and Kyd are
forced to become investigators by circumstances.
Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy portrays
Hieronimo as a bereaved father turned investigator after
receiving a letter from Bel-imperia which reveals the
identity of the murderers:
Me hath my hapless
brother hid from thee,
Revenge thyself on Balthazar and him:
For these were they that murdered thy son. [Act III
Although the letter
reveals the identity of the murderers, Hieronimo treats
it only as a clue and decides to investigate. He behaves
as any 'detective' of modern crime fiction would have
done. He says in the same speech:
My son slain by
Lorenzo and the Prince
What cause Had they Horatio to malign?
Or what might move thee Bel-imperia,
To accuse thy brother,
. . .
I therefore will by circumstances try,
What I can gather to confirm this writ [Act III Scene
Later in the play,
when the hangman's letter reveals the murderers of
Horatio, Hieronimo finds Bel-imperia's letter to be true
and not a trap. A similar pattern is seen in Agatha
Christie's The Hollow, which starts with a
murder and a lady accused of the crime. The lady is soon
acquitted as the evidence indicates her innocence.
However, at the end the same lady is found to be the
killer. Hercule Poirot solves the case by concentrating
on the initial evidence and negating the possibilities
which cropped up later.
Just as Bel-imperia's letter provides the clue in The
Spanish Tragedy, the clue in Hamlet is
provided by the dead King's ghost. Hamlet suspects a foul
deed when Horatio mentions the presence of the ghost in
My father's spirit
- in arms? All is not well.
I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come!
Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes. [Act
I Scene ii]
Hamlet suspects that a
crime has been covered up, but even when the Ghost has
revealed the secret of his death Hamlet does not
immediately embark upon action. Instead, taking on the
role of investigator, he sets out to prove the crime
before seeking revenge. Hamlet goes through a complex
process of trial and error to prove the guilt of Claudius,
even though the method of the crime and the identity of
the criminal were known to him. The Ghost's message is
merely taken as a clue that leads Hamlet towards the
As Paul N. Siegel states in his essay Hamlet, Revenge
, 'another question related to the question of how we
are to respond to the ghost's call is that of how we are
to regard the ghost itself. From the late eighteenth
century on, it ceased being presented on the stage as a
terrifying figure and becomes a majestic figure before
whom Hamlet kneels in reverence, ready to do his bidding.'
This was also how other critics regarded it. J. Dover
Wilson, however, examining the Elizabethan literature on
ghosts, restored the terror of the Hamlet ghost. He found
that ghosts could be regarded as hallucinations, devils,
angels or (by Catholics) souls from purgatory. The Ghost
in Hamlet displaying bewilderingly diverse
indications of what it was, was watched by the
Elizabethan audience with doubt and uncertainty. This
doubt and uncertainty, said Wilson, 'was never resolved.'
Perhaps one reason the doubt regarding the Ghost is never
resolved is that Shakespeare never intended the Ghost to
have any other function other than to lead Hamlet to the
right path. When the Ghost reappears in Act III Scene iv
his purpose is to assist Hamlet in unravelling the crime.
The Ghost says pointing at the Queen - 'Do not forget;
this visitation/ Is to whet thy almost blunted purpose.'
Hamlet's 'madness' can also be seen in terms of his role
as investigator. He feigns madness to use means of
detection without being noticed - something that would
definitely have aroused the suspicion of others if Hamlet
had retained his own self. The twelfth century legend of Amleth
which is recorded in Saxo Grammaticus's 'Historie
Tragiques' and which probably is the source of Hamlet,
clearly presents Amleth as an avenger who feigns madness
in order to find out the secret of his father's murder.
It reads - (Oliver Elton's translation, 1926) - 'Amleth
beheld all this but feared lest too shrewd a behaviour
might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign
dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning
course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured
his safety . . . you would not have thought him a man at
all, but some absurd abortion due to a mad fit of destiny.'
In Belleforest's version of Saxo Grammaticus's Histories
Tragiques Hamblet is presented as a character who is
both cunning and witty, and who pretends to be a fool to
deceive others. Belleforest writes, 'Hamblet in this
sorte counterfeiting the mad man, many times did diuers
actions of great and deepe consideration and often made
such and so fitte answers, that a wise man would soone
haue iudged from what spirite so fine an inuention mighte
proceede . . . fooles as I said before, esteemed those
his words as nothing, but men of quicke spirites, and
such as hadde a deeper reach began to suspect somewhat,
esteeming that vnder that kinde of folly there lay hidden
a deeper and rare subtility.'
Hamlet's reasoning is clear even though he acts like a
madman calling Polonius a 'fishmonger', and like a
professional investigator of modern crime fiction he
tries to remain emotionally detached from his suspects,
and exploits them emotionally in his search for the truth.
Conan Doyle borrows heavily from Hamlet when Sherlock
Holmes sets out to solve The Reigate Puzzle.
Sherlock Holmes feigns madness in order to enter into the
house of Mr Cunningham, and Dr Watson even quotes from
Hamlet by saying that there is a method in Holmes's
Hamlet's reasoning is clearly revealed when he plans the
. . . I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions:
. . . The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King. [Act
II Scene ii]
Mousetrap is being staged Hamlet, as Ophelia says,
acts as a Chorus. He interprets the scenes and the
actions. Hamlet observes the reactions of the King and
the Queen and when the King cries out for light Hamlet's
suspicion is confirmed. We find a similar device being
used by Agatha Christie in her novel The Mirror Crack'd
From Side to Side where leaving aside the other
questions regarding a murder in her neighbourhood Miss
Marple chooses to concentrate on a particular expression
on the face of a distinguished lady at a particular
moment before the murder. Later the lady is found to be
the killer. However, unlike Hamlet, Miss Marple does not
get to see the expression of the lady herself, but merely
learns about it from other sources.
Hamlet has another interesting feature; instead
of one there are two investigator figures. While Hamlet
tries to unravel the mystery of his father's death,
Polonius is trying to see through Hamlet's 'crafty
madness', and therefore Hamlet the investigator also
becomes the object of an investigation. Hercule Poirot
has to face a similar situation in the novel The Big
Four, where while attempting to unmask a group of
unknown but influential criminals he himself becomes the
target of a murder plot. If Hamlet had not killed
Polonius so suddenly, the play could have been the arena
of the interplay of two investigator figures.
Hamlet and Hieronimo are not merely investigators - they
are criminals at the same time. They do not resort to the
law, they themselves bring justice and in doing so commit
crimes themselves. Their characters combine the elements
of both the just and the criminal, a combination that
Vidocq said would make a fine detective.
The investigator figure of the modern crime fiction is
endowed with the qualities that characterised the
Renaissance 'investigator' tragic figures such as
Hieronimo and Hamlet and Voltaire's Zadig. The
Renaissance tragic heroes like Hamlet and Hieronimo were
created for an audience who were content with the complex
plots and gory violence on the stage and hardly showed
any appetite for mysteries. Therefore the characters were
not created as investigators in the sense we call
Sherlock Holmes an investigator. However they contained
within themselves many qualities that were to be
manifested in the detective figure of the twentieth
1. Clewer, A. H. Modern Crime Fiction
2. Drinkwater, John. The Outline of Literature
3. Siegel, Paul N. Hamlet, Revenge
See also: T. S. Eliot. Hamlet and his Problems
An online edition of Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy
can be found here:
Appendix: Excerpt from Voltaire's Zadig (1748)
One day when Zadig was walking near a little wood he saw
the Queen's chief attendants and several officers running
towards him. He noticed that they were in great anxiety
for they ran about as if they were quite bewildered,
looking for something of great value, which they had lost.
When they came up to him the chief Eunuch said, "Have
you seen the Queen's pet dog?"
Zadig replied, "Is it a female dog?"
"You are right," said the Eunuch.
"It is a very small spaniel," added Zadig;
"she has recently had puppies, she has a limp of the
left forefoot, and she has very long ears."
"You have seen her then," exclaimed the Eunuch
Zadig's reply was in the negative.
Precisely at the same time, by an extraordinary
coincidence, the most beautiful horse in the King's
stable had escaped from the hands of the stable
attendants and galloped out on the plains of Babylon. The
Grand Vizier and all other officers ran after it with as
much anxiety as the first Eunuch after the spaniel. The
Grand Vizier addressed himself to Zadig, and asked him if
he had seen the King's horse pass.
Zadig replied, "It is a horse, which gallops to
perfection; it is five feet high, with very small hoofs.
It has a tail three and half feet long; the bits of its
bridle is of twenty three carat gold; its shoes are of
"What road has it taken? Where is it?" demanded
"I have never seen it," replied Zadig, "and
I have never heard it spoken of."
Zadig's reply failed to convince the Vizier and the
Eunuch and he was arrested. When the horse and the dog
were found and Zadig's innocence was acknowledged - he
was presented before the Great Desterhan where he pleaded
his case in these terms - "This is what happened to
me. I was walking towards the little wood, where I lately
encountered the venerable Eunuch and the most illustrious
Vizier. I had seen on the sand the traces of an animal,
and I had easily judged that they were those of a little
dog. The light and long furrows imprinted on the little
eminences of the sand between the traces of the feet
showed me that it was a female and that it had lately
given birth to pups. Other traces that appeared to have
continually raised the surface of the sand by the side of
the front feet told me that she had long ears. As I
remarked that the sand was always less crushed by one
foot than by three others, I understood that the dog of
our august Queen was, if I may dare say so, a little lame."
© Tannistho Ghosh, June 2002
See Tannistho Ghosh's blog: The Spirit of Ferdinand
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