Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Herodotus, crime writer

I can’t get away from crime even when I try. Herodotus Histories traces the enmity between Persians and Greeks in the fifth century BC to a spate of kidnappings.

When did people stop believing that war could have such a personal cause? (Before Herodotus' body was cold in his grave, apparently. Aristophanes' satirical play The Acharnians, produced in 425 BC, around the time Herodotus is thought to have died, pokes fun at the notion.)

And here's your chance to provide new answers to the classic question What works of great literature contain elements of crime? (Extra credit for going beyond the standards of Hamlet, Macbeth and Crime and Punishment.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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48 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

So I suppose Brothers Karamazov is also way too easy.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I'd say The Brothers
K gets you in. I have seen it cited in discussions such as this, but not nearly as often as Crime and Punishment.

V-word: fangs.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

Virtually every great classic is genre fiction: mostly crime or military adventure.

Oedipus Rex: father murder!

Iliad: corruption, bribery, kidnapping, murder, rape...

Ion, by Euripides: two attempted homicides.

The Aeneid.

The Trachiniae, by Sophocles: murder by poison

Electra: need I say more?

Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer: illegal possession of weapons (a rusty sword).

Murder in the Cathedral, by TS Eliot.

Frankenstein.

Almost all the eddas and sagas of the Vikings have some criminal event.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Voltaire's Zadig?

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary:

Oh, yeah, Oedipus Rex comes up in these discussions. Deep, dark family secrets -- maybe Ross Macdonald could have done something with such a theme or, in our own time, Declan Hughes. The sagas have criminal events, courtroom drama, femmes fatales -- you name it. I have several times quoted this bit from Njal's Saga:

Hallgerd was outside. "There is blood on your axe," she said. "What have you done?"

“I have now arranged that you can be married a second time," replied Thjostolf.


And is there any better proto-femme-fatale than Ishtar in The Epic of Gilgamesh?

Among the Greeks, one expects crime in epic and drama, but in history? Now, that's cool.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, Zadig may also be the only proto-detective who has a clothing store named for him.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Ian Ayris said...

First one that springs to mind, Peter, is Wilkie Collins' 'Woman in White'. Criminal horror of the Victorian kind. Brilliant.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, right. Victorians. Oliver Twist. And maybe all of Dickens in general, at least looked at in the right way.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ian, if people keep mentioning Wilkie Collins, I'm going to have to read him. Thanks.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Dickens was big on the underworld and prisons, so he could qualify. And one of the prisons he wrote about, though not in his fiction, is here in Philadelphia.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

To me The Count of Monte Cristo is very noir. It's one of my favorite revenge tales.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

The Nibelungenlied. Browning's "My Last Duchess".

Actually, there don't seem to be nearly enough. Or my mind is a blank today.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solea, I just may have to go find myself a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo today.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous James R. Benn said...

The Great Gatsby - bootlegging, fixing the World Series, not to mention the murder of Gatsby.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., the Wikipedia article has a side-by-side English and Old German rendering of the opening to the Nibelungenlied. This piques my interest. And if I get tired of reading, I can always listen to Wagner's musical version.

Here is my favorite sentence from the Wikipedia article:

"The word Nibelungen is transferred from a legendary race of Germanic dwarfs and their treasure, to the followers of Siegfried and finally to the Burgundians which are portrayed in the poem."

"A legendary race of Germanic dwarfs" is the most delicious phrase I have read since the last time I read P.G. Wodehouse.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous adrian said...

Peter

Wait a minute...

Wait just a goddamn minute.

You havent read Wilkie Collins?

The Moonstone and The Woman in White are two of the most gripping crime novels ever written. Breathtakingly modern too in their use of meta narrative and documentary evidence.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Let's get Dostoyevsky out of the way with his _The Possessed_ (aka The Demons/The Devils) and _The Idiot_, both of which include at least one murder.

The Bible (if it hasn't been mentioned already): first accounts of every crime one can think of, including murder, incest, rape, theft. . .

Thomas Hardy's _Tess_

Joseph Conrad's _The Secret Agent_
and _Under Western Eyes_--murder and assassination.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I admit that the one time I tried to read The Moonstone, I was too inattentive and impatient to read Victorian prose.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I’ve just found this interesting article about The Secret Agent. I would have said that the novel's invocation of terrorism is of special interest, but the article suggests that the book was not especially prescient on the subject.

The Bible is so full of murder, rape, deception and human trafficking that, if not noir, it's certainly hard-boiled.

And I like this bit of your comment taken out context. It sounds like an eavesdropped snippet of a murder plot:

"Let's get Dostoyevsky out of the way."

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

James, the Arnold Rothstein character is a memorably slimy supporting criminal. Thanks for nominating that eminently respectable American crime story.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Not very prescient? Well, I'll bow to that person's superior knowledge then.

After all, _The Secret Agent_ includes bombings designed to induce terror in the population, government spies, agent provocateurs, double agents, and terrorists ranging from those who talk a good show to one who walks around with a vest loaded with explosives and holding a dead man's switch.

As you can see, there's not much here, is there?

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

"And I like this bit of your comment taken out context. It sounds like an eavesdropped snippet of a murder plot:

"Let's get Dostoyevsky out of the way."


Chuckle. . .No doubt a conversation between Turgenev and a friend.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Solea said...

I'm shocked Peter! And when you rush out, make it a used indy bookstore (and pick up a Fletch too).

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, the writer appeared to rate "Under Western Eyes" a more serious examination of terrorism than "The Secret Agent."

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No doubt a conversation between Turgenev and a friend.

In an early Woody Allen essay, possibly, back when he was funny.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solea, this trip it was Wilkie Collins, some Icelandic sagas, and a selection of Pascal's Pensées. I will try to find some connection to crime fiction in the last of these.

I'll probably save Fletch for my next trip to Philadelphia's Whodunit?, which had a nice selection on one of my recent visits there.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The writers of the so-called Naturalism and Social Realism schools could explore the basest of human emotions and actions...

Émile Zola's "Thérèse Raquin," 1867. Murder and revenge.
or "La Bête Humaine," 1890. Uncontrollable lust leads to murder.

Frank Norris's "McTeague: A Story of San Francisco," 1899. Avariciousness leads to rape and murder.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, Frank Norris should have been a greater presence than he was at the recent San Francisco Bouchercon. And Zola's "J'accuse" came up in one of my previous posts on this topic.

November 02, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," murder, etc.

Also, I was always of the view that Wilkie Collins' "A Woman in White," and "The Moonstone," are considered mysteries, in fact the first--or among the first--mysteries published in English.

November 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I share your belief that Collins' work has always been considered early examples of the detective story. In any case, this discussion got me to buy The Woman in White, and that's what matters.

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

That would have been a very early one by Woody Allen.

I had read that _The Moonstone_ was considered by some scholars to be the first police procedural novel.

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Early equals good when it comes to his essays. Russian literature figured in some of them, as did parodies of crime fiction, though in the latter he was probably borrowing the idea directly from S.J. Perelman.

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

A more serious examination?

I guess he didn't appreciate Conrad's satiric treatment of the parlor terrorists.

I started _The Woman in White_ but lost interest about half way through. I thought that some of the characters were so dense that murdering them would have been a kindness.

I found _The Moonstone_ to be much more interesting.

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, take a look at the article. It appears that he did appreciate Conrad's satiric treatment of the parlor terrorists. He singles them out as parlor terrorists, in fact, and took this as a clue that "The Secret Agent" was more a satirical look at British attitudes about terrorism than an examination of terrorism itself. In any case, "Under Western Eyes" is a much less-known book, and I looked for it today but did not find it.

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

There is a book (readable online in Google Books) by Einer Haugen where Ibsen is linked into the mystery tradition.

There certainly are many shady deals done in his plays.

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales, I once speculated about which thinkers of the past would make good fictional detectives. Rousseau would not, I suggested, because he was too self-absorbed. Voltaire was a natural yes, and I also said Montaigne would make a good sleuth (in the eccentric-amateur tradition, now that I think of it) because he was easily drawn off on tangents but sought always to find truths, even unexpected ones.

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Thanks for the link. I found the article interesting.

However, I don't think he has contemplated his own words when he says _The Secret Agent_ isn't "prescient."

"The real evil of the novel emerges from the exigencies of counterterrorism, not the anarchist plotting itself."


To my way of thinking, this aspect of Conrad's _Secret Agent_ is right on, if we consider what's happened here in the USA since 9/11.

We have brought about more harm by our own actions that have seriously weakened our civil liberties as once outlined by the Bill of Rights, than any terrorist could do with a bomb.

I would rename it "The Former Bill of Rights."

November 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Superficial media glibness would not be a first, but I will reserve judgment until I've read both Conrad books -- and flown overseas from a U.S. airport again.

November 04, 2010  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

"Nostromo" is very worth reading, beautifully written and with a fine political sensitivity.

It is possible to imagine every aspect of life in Conrad's invented country and the question of solidarity in times of trouble is suitable for consideration today.

The thread throughout his work is the question of trust and reliability when people come under extreme pressure.

The unreliable narrator is always interesting, as it makes one question the limitations of human perception in general.

November 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. Conrad is turning into a one-man reading list.

November 04, 2010  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

About nine, ten months ago, I wrote a piece for Crimespree called "Hilarious Othello." It's my favorite thriller in the entire world! Ahhhh! And it's Shakespeare's shortest play. It's all about a murderer who declares he's ... an honorable murderer.

November 04, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Conrad is well worth the effort.

November 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, is a link available to that piece?

November 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Other Fred: I can link future Conrad posts to previous discussions of Hitchcock who, of course, made a movie based on Conrad's "The Secret Agent." (Some of you will already know that that movie was "Sabotage" and not the Hitchcock film called "The Secret Agent.")

November 05, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Yes, that was rather confusing at first. Conrad's _The Secret Agent_ became _Sabotage_ and Hitchcock's _Secret Agent_ had little to do with Conrad's _Secret Agent _.

November 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nor is Hitchcock's Sabotage to be confused with his Saboteur.

November 05, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

There is a dramatization of Conrad's _The Secret Agent_ which is closer to the novel than Hitchcock's version.

The title is _The Secret Agent_, and it came out in 1996 with Bob Hoskins as Verloc and Patricia Arquette as his wife Winnie.

It's available on Netflix.

November 05, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had not heard of that production before. Sounds like a good role for the excellent Hoskins.

November 05, 2010  

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