MYSTERY AND HISTORY: The First Classic Murder Case

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It’s a new month, so the Tuesday Night Bloggers are changing the subject! Throughout November we will be discussing mysteries that have some connection to history. I would like to modestly boast that this was my idea, and I sold it as a topic broad enough to encompass a variety of perspectives. Yet, while my fellow TNB’ers happily chatted about ways they would approach “Mystery and History,” I found myself staring at a blank page. Fortunately, the other facets of my life took over – the drama director, the English teacher – and I started to get a glimmer of an idea. Why not talk about the first great mystery? Why not begin . . . with Oedipus?!?

Every day, a high school teacher faces the challenge of turning potentially dry material into exciting stuff for teenagers. And while Sophocles’ poetic dialogue may leave my students cold, the story of Oedipus always grabs them because it absolutely grosses them out! I sell the story as a great whodunit, and there’s nothing like a mystery with an added dollop of incest, some supernatural elements like lady monsters and psychics, and a wallop of a surprise ending.

Think about it: the story of Oedipus is a classic tale of reversal and surprise where the hunter becomes the hunted, and the killer turns out to be the least likely suspect.

The fact that the tale of Oedipus the King was so well known to ancient Greek audiences that they knew the surprise walking in didn’t lessen their enjoyment one bit! That’s what great storytelling will do for you. Oedipus also proves that a good mystery doesn’t have to focus solely on the puzzle. It can be rich in characterization to the point of illuminating the essence of human nature; it also provides historical perspective and moral acuity. Oedipus’ tragedy offers several important life lessons for the ancient Greeks: one, it’s okay not to be king (they tend to have it harder than you); two, finding that balance between pride and humility is an important quality to cultivate; and three, fate is a bitch, so why fight it? In the case of Oedipus, the sins of the father are revisited upon the son, and you can’t choose your parents, can you? (Even though Oedipus tried . . . )

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Ancient Thebes, like your typical English provides an appropriate closed circle for a murder mystery that places us firmly in GAD territory. For those of you who haven’t taken an English or classics course in a long time, some backstory follows:

Oedipus had ascended the throne by killing the Sphinx, a really cool monster who guarded the gates and got very testy with people who couldn’t answer her riddle. Oedipus dispatched that little problem in nothing flat, freeing the citizens from her dreaded curse and foreshadowing his abilities as a crime solver. It seems that his timing could not have been better. The Thebans had just lost Laius, their king, who had been murdered on the road by a passing stranger. (CUE DRAMATIC CHORDS!!!) The kingdom needed a new ruler, and the widow Jocasta, a passionate woman of child-bearing age, needed a new husband. Exit Oedipus the hero – enter Oedipus the King.

As the play opens, Oedipus misses being a hero! All kings get to do to is sire one child after another. Soon enough, the chance to be a savior to the people yet again appears: a terrible plague descends upon Thebes, and Oedipus sends his chief advisor (and brother-in-law) Creon to the oracle to find out what’s going on. Creon returns with news that should set every mystery-lover’s heart a-flutter: a past murder case is casting a shadow over the land. Remember that old unsolved murder of King Laius I mentioned? It turns out that old sins cast long shadows and, in ancient Greece, that spells plague. Detective Oedipus is on the case immediately, sending for the wisest stoolie he knows: the blind prophet Teiresias. The prophet peers into the mists and figures the whole thing out yet refuses to clear the matter up! He knows that you’re not supposed to reveal the killer till at least the second to last chapter. And he warns Oedipus to drop the case or he’ll be sorry, see? Yes, in my perfect casting, Edward G. Robinson would play Teiresias! Because, you see, this is the moment when things turn a little hard-boiled, a little film noir! For Oedipus will not let up, and an exasperated Tiresias gives away the ending and tells Oedipus that he himself is the killer.

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Now, this might seem like a huge cheat (unless you like your mysteries inverted). But honestly, this makes the whole case both emotionally resonant and historically significant. On the one hand, Oedipus is about to learn things about himself he never knew, but on the other hand, he should know better than to fight with those who have a direct link to the gods. But on the other other hand, if he just drops the matter, Oedipus will watch his subjects turn into extras on The Walking Dead. To sum up: a hero should know when it’s not appropriate to play the hero, but we still have to admire his determination to make things right even as, bit by bit through this investigation, he begins to expose the true horrific nature of his own existence. And besides, Oedipus figures that Tiresias was speaking metaphorically because he knows he can’t be the polluted soul he once heard about who killed his own father and married his own mother. And so he starts to collect the evidence, whereupon witnesses lie, more deaths occur, and with each new fact and shocking event, Oedipus moves closer to discovering the horrible truth about himself.

The annals of literature, including classic and detective fiction, are filled with characters who think – incorrectly, as it turns out – that they can beat the odds and escape punishment for their sings. We have the victims who think they can play by their own rules to make their own lives, or the lives of others, better. People like Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, who challenges the constricted roles of women in her provincial French village. Or Dr. John Cristow in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, who abuses the women in his life on his path to eliminate a dreaded disease and save lives. Then we have the murderers: the killers like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment who are tripped up by their sense of guilt. Or those in Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe or Ellery Queen’s Ten Day’s Wonder, who actually think of themselves as gods and place their actions above human judgment. We even find the occasional detective, like Roger Sheringham, Philip Trent, or Lucy Pym, who takes it upon him/herself to rectify a moral wrong out of a sense of his or her own cleverness. The results in these cases range from ineffectual to downright harmful. (Miss Pym actually destroys innocent lives!)

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What is so very cool about Oedipus Rex is that Oedipus is all three of these types in one! He is the victim of his father Laius’ crimes. Laius committed a series of atrocities on the path to royal status, earning him the enmity of the gods. Even then, the Olympians struck a bargain that I consider quite generous, saying, “Okay, Laius, go ahead and be a king despite your naughtiness. Just don’t have any kids and we’ll call it even.” And we see how that worked out.

It seems unfair that Oedipus is propelled along a fateful path toward his destiny because of things that were out of his control. Judging his behavior, we find in the negative column a refusal to heed the warnings all around him and an overweening pride in his abilities to solve everything. Oedipus receives more warnings not to poke around than did the Nameless Detective in Hammett’s Red Harvest, and by all the laws of that ancient time, he should have listened. Instead, he has to go and play detective, and it brings about the destruction of his own house.

On the other hand, classic mysteries end with society brought back to a state of balance and health, and, in a way, this happens to Oedipus. He becomes a true hero because his self-destruction ends the plague, and he achieves a new sense of grace. (although he has to blind himself to do it). He becomes a wise, holy man, and he moves on to Colonus where he looks his fate squarely in the (hollow-socketed) eye and inspires others to do the same.

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Interestingly, in the second and third parts of Oedipus’ saga, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, Creon becomes the villain. He is an interesting character, a middle-man, a bureaucrat. Just think of all the classic mysteries where the killer turns out to be the secretary, or the bank manager, or the vice president of the corporation. Mystery fiction is littered with “Creons.”

Ultimately, in reading about Oedipus, we gain valuable understanding of the ancient Greeks: their spiritual beliefs, their notions of justice, the place of the individual within the community. It’s interesting to compare these old ideas with modern notions. We seem to have evolved past the idea that a son must pay for his father’s sins, although modern culture and literature is full of dynasties where children improve upon the achievements of their parents – or take the sins of the past into deeper, darker territory. (Thank you, Fred Trump!)

The other thing I always get from reading Oedipus Rex is how much the Greeks loved a good story and how a really great mystery can be revisited again and again, even when you know the solution to the case! I can re-read the best of Christie or Carr or Doyle or other favorites over and over again, relishing each step that leads to the solution. I may not feel that “gotcha” moment anymore, but I love reliving the journey. And I so enjoy seeing the look of surprise on the faces of new readers or viewers.

I may find the comments section below strewn with naysayers who don’t buy the idea that Oedipus belongs among the ranks of great crime stories. But if you could have sat in that mountainside arena in ancient Greece over a thousand years ago and felt the suspense that watching this play generated among the huge audience and witnessed the look of surprised joy that hit everyone when Oedipus came face to face with the bitter folly of his life, I think you, too, would embrace Oedipus Rex as one of the best of mysteries!

 

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16 thoughts on “MYSTERY AND HISTORY: The First Classic Murder Case

  1. Brilliant post Brad. I enjoyed studying this play for my A levels. I’m sure Sayers considered this as an early example of detective/mystery fiction too. Euripides’ Medea was another favourite ancient Greek play of mine. It’s not a mystery like Oedipus Rex is but I think it is story which definitely looks at closely at what goes into a crime and a killer.

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    1. Frankly, Kate, I find Medea a far more fascinating figure than Oedipus. She embodies all the complexities of a powerful woman in a time when women with power – at least mortal women – were ignored, while Oedipus is your typical impetuous male, albeit one with an awful lot of cards stacked against him! I totally agree that Medea makes for a great crime story, showing how a woman is pushed to commit the worst atrocity.

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  2. I apologise for my flippancy above, Bradley — this is an intelligent and insightful argument that does exactly what we should all be doing: taking something imoprtant and appropriating it for detective fiction! To be honest, I only really know the story in broad sweeps — for me “the classics” start in about 1920 — but I love the links you make with examples of the form, and it’s true that these themes are really what ties all these stories together, so presence of enough of these themes makes for a mystery…I’ll buy that.

    I’ve been trying for a very long time to write something about classifying precisely when something becomes a mystery — it’s not about the guilty party being unknown, because inverted mysteries still qualify, and it’s not about the commission of a crime per se because then a good wedge half of the Holmes stories and others don’t qualify…it’s not really for me to thrash this out in the comments of your post, but it’s given me more to think about. Expect updates no time soon!

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    1. Good lord! What a piece of work I am! You make me sound positively intelligent, JJ. (Isn’t “appropriating” another word for stealing?) I think we should go see Madea’s Halloween together, then knock back a pint – gluten free for me – and hash this subject out! This may require five or six pints – I may have to switch to a very expensive whiskey. I admit I have stretched the topic by tackling Oedipus, at least in terms of Golden Age mysteries. If, in some small way, I shined a light on how much I respect the GAD form as something that is both entertaining AND enlightening, then yay for me!

      We could do a Madea marathon – ten movies, ten whiskeys – then we write and publish our opus, Oedipus, Shmedipus: The Role of the Mother in Mysteries from Sophocles to Psycho!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think my gut reaction to when something becomes a mystery is when the story focuses on the unravelling of the mystery or in the case of the inverted mystery the events which lead to the criminal’s capture. However I can already envisage the holes in this argument so it’s still down to you two and your drunken revelries to sort this issue out. Sayers’ essays/introductions may be a place to start as I vaguely remember in one of them that she looks to the earlier origins of mysteries.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’d say that there’s a difference between a mystery, a detective story and a crime story. In a mystery, the reader doesn’t know who, how or why. A detective story shows the detective using their brains to solve a mystery. A crime story is about a crime, told from the villain or victim’s perspective (so there might not be any mystery or detection). “The Singing Bone” is an inverted detective story; and Malice Aforethought and “Philomel Cottage” are crime stories.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. This is a significantly better place to start than the one I had chosen, thank-you. Hey, maybe I can get everyone else to figure it out for me and I just write up what they say. That’s….research, right? Anyone else wanna be ripped off, uh, I mean help out ?:)

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Kate said the same thing about Sayers. Clearly Sayers read my blog! 🙂

      Nice distinction between the three types of mystery story! I might call Oedipus an inverted detective story as we see the skill employed, and it results in closing in on the killer . . . And Oedipus KNOWS he’s the culprit because he has been told this, but he refuses to believe it. I know I’m pushing a huge tale into a smaller mold, but the parallels are fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

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