Who Wrote the First Detective Novel?

For a long time, I mostly read science-fiction stories, but I love film noir and Ed Brubaker’s comics, so I decided to embrace my interest in detective stories. Now, I’m a big Ross Macdonald fan. As I’m exploring the genre, I started to look into its history and, naturally, I wanted to go back to the beginning!

Who is the Author of the First Detective Novel?

There have always been detective stories, apparently. It’s certainly not my field of expertise, but it seems that the Old Testament story of Susanna and the Elders, located within the Apocrypha of the Protestant Bible, displayed aspects of investigation when Daniel cross-examined witnesses.

Also, in ancient Greece, the play “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles (5th century BCE) showcased the protagonist Oedipus investigating the unsolved murder of King Laius, illustrating early elements of the detective story.

Then, during the Middle Ages, the collection “One Thousand and One Nights” (Arabian Nights) included an early detective tale titled “The Three Apples,” a story, set around the Abbasid Caliphate.

In China, the genre of Gong’an fiction emerged as the earliest known Chinese detective fiction during the Song dynasty period, with stories featuring de famous Judge Dee and Judge Bao.

The First Detectives in Western Literature

In the 19th century, Western literature saw significant developments in detective fiction. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) is considered the first modern detective short story (not a novel), featuring C. Auguste Dupin–read it here.

After that, we got Wilkie Collins who famously contributed to the genre with “The Woman in White” (1859) to a certain degree, but it’s his novel “The Moonstone” published in 1868 that is today widely regarded as one of the earliest and most influential detective novels in English literature.

“The Moonstone” begins with the theft of a large and valuable yellow diamond known as the Moonstone from the statue of the Hindu god on the night of Rachel Verinder’s eighteenth birthday. Rachel is a young English woman and the diamond was bequeathed to her by her late uncle, a British army officer who acquired it during his service in India. The diamond has a mysterious and somewhat infamous history, as it was originally stolen from a Hindu shrine and carries with it a curse.

The story is presented as a series of narratives from different characters, each providing their perspective on the events surrounding the theft of the Moonstone. The narratives include testimonies from various people involved in the case, such as the family members, servants, and visitors at Rachel’s house, known as the Verinder family.

Illustration from 1868’s edition of Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone.”

But reading an article on NPR, led me to learn about “The Notting Hill Mystery” by “Charles Felix” (Charles Warren Adams) which appeared to precede “The Moonstone” by a few years (being published around 1862-63) and introduced techniques that defined the genre–Louisa May Alcott with “V.V., or Plots and Counterplots” (1865) was also published before “The Moonstone.”

Also, Edward Ellis’s “Ruth The Betrayer” (1863), the first fictional female detective story, has been put aside because it was not “respectable” as it was published in a penny dreadful. But still, it came before.

Even a bit earlier, there was Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “The Trail of the Serpent” (1861) which is considered by some as the first British detective novel.

In France, in 1868, Émile Gaboriau’s “Monsieur Lecoq” became influential, featuring a detective skilled in disguise and meticulous examination of crime scenes.

Of course, no detective has been more influential than, created by Arthur Conan Doyle, in 1887. The cerebral strategies and adventures of Holmes came to represent detective fiction.

If you’re into the history of books, I recently wrote about the first paperbacks.

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