The Dead Witness

A Connoisseur's Collection of Victorian Detective Stories

by Michael Sims

The Dead Witness

Paperback, 576 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $20 | purchase

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Book Summary

The editor of Dracula's Guest presents a treasury of top-selected Victorian detective stories as written by such luminaries as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens and includes the first two chapters of Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, in which Sherlock Holmes first meets Watson. Original.

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Excerpt: The Dead Witness

Introduction

In the long view of history, detectives are a recent phenomenon. Crime is not. As archaeologists often demonstrate, deception, theft, and violence haunted society even before we left caves or invented agriculture. Consequently, because our imagination is as natural as our penchant for brutality, crime has flourished as a cultural theme from Antigone to Law & Order.

Many people think that Sherlock Holmes was among the earliest detectives in literature. In The Dead Witness, however, he doesn't appear chronologically until about halfway through, because he had numerous ancestors. Among the legion of villains and heroes in world literature are a handful of fascinating proto-detectives who waxed Sherlockian long before Loveday Brooke and November Joe and the other characters you will meet in this book. These figures insist upon the importance of justice and evidence in criminal cases — rather than accusation and torture — or demonstrate a rational approach to problem solving. They pay attention and theorize about what they observe. While the stories in this volume are adventurous, suspenseful, and sometimes amusing, the detectives in them behave in many ways like scientists, luxuriating in the act of reasoning while benefitting from its practical results.

The biblical Daniel seems to have been the first fictional detective. Aside from his roles as interpreter of dreams, tamer of lions, killer of dragons, and spouter of visions and prophecies, Daniel participates in a couple of thorny criminal cases. First he solves the earliest locked-room mystery on record, which is also an expose of the follies of idol worship. King Cyrus the Persian asks Daniel, "Why do you not worship Bel?" and Daniel replies cheekily that he worships a living god, not an idol. Cyrus points out that every night Bel consumes a vast amount of wine and food, not to mention forty sheep, and therefore must be quite authentic. Daniel laughs and says, "Do not be deceived, O king; for this is but clay inside and brass outside, and it never ate or drank anything." Furious, Cyrus orders his priests to prove Bel's reality or die. They depart, telling the king to lay out the usual daily god food himself. The next morning it's gone and Cyrus prepares to execute Daniel for blasphemy.

In the kind of scene that would later become standard in detective stories, Daniel stands among suspects and accusers and unravels the true story. In doing so he provides the reconfiguring of the narrative — the reshuffling of what the reader thought had happened into what actually happened — that is one of the great aesthetic pleasures of detective stories. The night before, Daniel had secretly covered the stone floor in a fine layer of ash. As the king and priests stand before him, he points down at the floor and explains. His ploy has recorded the nocturnal scurries of the villains, the footprints of the priests and their families, who have entered the sanctum through a secret entrance under a table. Cyrus executes them instead and applauds Daniel.

Another Daniel story, the sad apocryphal tale of Susanna and the Elders, opens with the miscreants and their victim, like an episode of Columbo. Two judges lust after Susanna, the beautiful young wife of a prominent elder named Joakim. Each hides in the palace garden, hoping to meet the nubile maiden secretly. Right on cue, Susanna decides to bathe in the pool — a scene that later provided endless opportunities for artists to portray female nudity with an ecclesiastical stamp of approval. The voyeuristic judges rush out and threaten to accuse her of adultery with another if she doesn't secretly commit it with them. "I am completely trapped," Susanna moans. "If I yield, it will be my death; if I refuse, I cannot escape your power." Yet she bravely refuses to submit. Instead she screams. But the men shout as well and run to open the garden gates, and as people rush in the judges begin their glib lies, claiming to have witnessed Susanna fornicating. Predictably, she is condemned to die.

Daniel now provides the first courtroom reversal. He interviews the two alleged witnesses separately, finding that one claims Susanna was fornicating under a mastic tree while the other says it was a holm tree. Clearly one is lying, because the mastic (pistachio) is much smaller, a mere shrub overshadowed by the evergreen holm. One tree could not be mistaken for the other. Thus Daniel is the first known literary figure to use physical evidence in a criminal case and also the first to cross-examine witnesses for discrepancies in their testimony.

More than two millennia passed before the next major proto-detective appeared in literature. In the 1740s, the French satirist and philosopher Voltaire published Zadig, or, The Book of Fate, a volume that was to prove influential in the history of literature, science, and fictional detectives. The title character is a Babylonian philosopher, but the vanity and injustice mocked by Voltaire are derived mostly from the author's daily life in eighteenth-century Europe. Like Candide, poor Zadig suffers a roller-coaster of misfortunes, in a wildly adventurous story replete with love, war, politics, and philosophy. At one point even his devotion to science and observation gets him into trouble.

Zadig is walking outdoors when a royal eunuch runs up and demands, "Young man, have you seen the queen's dog?"

"A bitch, I think, not a dog," replies Zadig with the smugness of many detectives to come. "A very small spaniel who has lately had puppies; she limps with the left foreleg, and has very long ears."

Of course the eunuch wants to know which way the dog has gone, but Zadig insists he hasn't seen it and goes on his way. Then a horseman runs up and asks Zadig if he has seen the king's missing horse. Zadig replies, "A first-rate galloper, small-hoofed, five feet high; tail three feet and a half long; cheek pieces of the bit of twenty-three carat gold; shoes silver?" The huntsman naturally exclaims, "Which way did he go?" but again Zadig explains that he hasn't even glimpsed the animal. Not surprisingly, he is hauled before the royal court and condemned to a labor camp. Then the dog and horse are found. The court reluctantly nullifies its verdict but fines Zadig for lying.

Only then does Zadig explain himself. With the encyclopedic gaze of a textbook detective, he had seen a small dog's paw prints in the sand, showing faint streaks between them wherever the sand rose, indicating that it was a female with the pendant teats of a bitch with pups. Other brushings of the sand alongside the front paws hinted that she had long ears, and a fainter imprint of one paw suggested lameness. Zadig also noticed the equidistant horseshoe tracks of a trained galloper and marks upon stone that told him its shoes were silver. He could discern where its tail had brushed to three-and-a-half feet on each side in a narrow alley, and leaves had been knocked down from a height of five feet. The horse's gold bit had left marks on a stone. Like his descendants in the detective story genre, Voltaire did not hesitate to stack the deck on behalf of his protagonist.

Excerpted from The Dead Witness by Michael Sims, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright 2011.

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