A Short History of Sleuthing Novels | Beaufort County Now | Who wrote the first murder mystery? An article in the Wall Street Journal gives the credit to Sophocles.

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Publisher's Note: Kathy Manos Penn is a native of the “Big Apple,” who settled in the “Peach City” – Atlanta. A former English teacher now happily retired from a corporate career in communications, she writes a weekly column for the Dunwoody Crier and the Highlands Newspaper. Read her blogs and columns and purchase her books, “The Ink Penn: Celebrating the Magic in the Everyday” and “Lord Banjo the Royal Pooch,” on her website theinkpenn.com or Amazon.

Kathy Manos Penn with Lord Banjo
    Who wrote the first murder mystery? An article in the Wall Street Journal gives the credit to Sophocles. Amanda Foreman, author of the article "Sleuthing through the ages," says Oedipus Rex, dating back to 429 BC, is in essence a tale of sleuthing. Oedipus resolves to discover who murdered Laius. That makes Oedipus the sleuth. The twist is that it turns out to be Oedipus who unwittingly killed Laius-his father-and also unwittingly married his mother. A tangled web indeed.

    Next, murder mysteries appeared in China, where magistrate literature was developed during the Song dynasty circa 960 – 1279. In these tales, it was judges who told stories of their cases. From there, we move to German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, whom the author credits with turning amateurs into sleuths. The heroine in one of his novellas is an elderly writer who helps with a murder case involving stolen jewelry. Perhaps she was the prototype for Miss Marple.

    It's not long, though, before Ms. Foreman gets to Edgar Alan Poe "who is generally regarded as the godfather of detective fiction." It's hard to believe Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841, and people are still reading it today. He too featured an amateur sleuth, August Dupin.

    And then, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle appears on the scene with Sherlock Holmes. He is quite possibly the longest enduring character in the mystery genre. The last Holmes story was published in 1927, and by then "the Golden Age of British crime fiction was in full swing."

    Sherlock Holmes may predate Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, but they too are enduring characters both in print and on film. Both have their peculiarities, though neither is addicted to cocaine as is Sherlock. Dame Agatha's mysteries are genteel.

    Not so, the novels by Americans authors Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Their writing is described as "hard-boiled social realism... [wherein] dead bodies in libraries are replaced by bloody corpses in cars."

    The article goes on to mention spy novels and psychological thrillers of today as merely two of the many subgenres that have sprung from the original murder mystery. When I think of spy novels, I think of authors John Le Carre, Eric Lustbader, and Robert Ludlum to name only a few.

    I had to turn to the internet for a list of 25 thriller titles and was surprised to see how few I've read. Several seem promising and are going on my library list: "The Guest List," "Stillhouse Lake," and "In a Dark, Dark Wood." I did read "The Silence of the Lambs." Didn't everyone? And I read "The Girl on the Train" and "Gone Girl," but didn't care for the latter. I want at least one likable character in my books.

    So, I'm back to my favorite refrain, "So many books, so little time," written by, of all people, Frank Zappa. Not a bad problem to have.

    Award-winning Author Kathy Manos Penn is a Georgia resident. Find her cozy mysteries on Amazon. Contact her at inkpenn119@gmail.com.
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