Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Watson Report: The First Whodunnit? (Part One)

By I.A. Watson

Some of you know that I've recently completed a whodunnit set in the biblical Tower of Babel. That set me thinking about the long history of detective stories. What was the first whodunnit?

Let's set some definitions first. In my view, for the story to count as a detective whodunnit the mystery has to be the central feature of the story, not some incidental side-plot. There has to be an unexplained event, probably a crime, and a process of deduction. The mystery has to be explained by the end of the tale. Fair definition?

Assuming so, then which was the first whodunnit?

I know people mostly point to Wilkie Collins "The Moonstone", 1868. I want to put forward "The Three Apples", from "The Arabian Nights", which was written down at least as far back as the sixteenth century and probably much earlier.

Here's the plot. Judge for yourself.

A fisherman on the Tigris discovers a heavy sealed chest and gives it in tribute to the Caliph Haroun al Rashid. The trunk is forced open and a dead woman's cut up body is found inside. The Caliph tasks his Vizier Jafar ibn Yahya to solve the case in three days or be executed in the murderer's stead.

The Vizier fails, but just as he is about to be executed, two men appear and each confesses to the murder. It turns out the the older man is father to the murdered woman, the younger her husband. The husband proves he did it by describing the corpse's severed condition. His father-in-law's attempts to save him from punishment are thwarted.

That sets up the next mystery. Why did the murderer confess? Cue an Arabian Nights narrative flashback to back when the murdered woman was alive, wife and mother of three...

When the woman fell ill she could only be saved by certain rare apples from the Caliph's orchard in Basra. Her loving husband travelled and acquired these items at great cost but when he returned she claimed to be too ill to eat them. However, later that day he sees a slave carrying the same rare apple. When the slave is accused of theft he explains that he had the apple from his girlfriend, who was given three special apples by her husband. The husband confronts his wife, finds an apple missing, and murders her. He cuts her body up, hides it in the trunk, and abandons it in the river.

But when the murderer returns home his son confesses to stealing the missing apple, and having it stolen in turn by a slave to whom he had told the story of his father's quest to Basra. The husband has killed his innocent wife - hence his confession to the Caliph so that he can be executed.

Haroun al Rashid instead commands the husband to locate the slave whose lies caused tragedy, giving three days stay of execution for the task (this Caliph appears to have had experience of getting people to meet deadlines).

Again, the search fails and the husband bids his family goodbye before his execution. As he hugs his daughter he feels something in her pocket - the very stolen apple that the slave escaped with! She admits to buying the apple from the slave, whom she can name. And so the case is solved.

This being Arabian Nights, the pardoned murderer then repays his Caliph's kindness by narrating another story.

I'd argue that this is an early detective story, albeit not a "play fair" type tale where the audience gets to race the investigator to a conclusion. Can anyone think of an earlier example?

For that matter, what was the first genuine "play fair" whodunnit?