Chris Goff: In 2017, at ThrillerFest in NYC, I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow thriller writer William Burton McCormick, who lives in Ukraine. He was particularly interested in my novel RED SKY, set in eastern Ukraine. Fast forward three years, and imagine my surprise when I received a note from my friend in December of 2020 asking if I’d be willing to read his international thriller, KGB Banker, written in conjunction with real-life Russian mob whistle-blower, John Christmas. KGB Banker blew me away and I sent him the following blurb:
A deftly written thriller with an insider’s view into Eastern Europe. This book lands a death grip on the reader from the first paragraph that doesn’t ease up until the last man has fallen. McCormick and Christmas open doors to the world of international banking and political intrigue, with a cast of characters so real you’ll swear you’ve met them and a setting that comes to life. This just might be the international thriller of the year! A definite must read!
The book finally came out this year, and I’m delighted to know that he has a new book coming, A Stranger from the Storm. I can’t wait to read it!
I’d also like to welcome Bill as a Rogue Women Writers’ guest blogger.
THE FIRST (AND MOST MALIGNED) DETECTIVE
Many credit Edgar Allan Poe as inventing the detective story with his 1841 short story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Mystery Writers of America (of which I am a member) are so certain this is the wellspring from which all detective fiction flows that they name their most prestigious mystery-writing award “The Edgar” in honor of Poe.
Mystery Writers of America are wrong. Or at least their reckoning is off.
By more than 2200 years.
The first detective story in Western literature was written by the Greek playwright Sophocles and debuted in 429 B.C at the Athenian festival Dionysia. It is the play Oedipus Tyrannus often called Oedipus the King or Oedipus Rex or Oedipus the Tyrant. (“Tyrant” in Classical times did not imply a cruel or unjust monarch, but simply referred to a ruler with an illegitimate claim to the throne).
Oedipus Tyrannus, of course, is the definitive Greek tragedy and arguably the greatest tragic play ever performed (sorry Hamlet fans!) The play is also a detective story in every modern sense.
- Its plot is set in motion by a murder to be solved.
- The detective (Oedipus) interviews experts, suspects and witnesses and uses his deductive skills to arrive at a solution.
- Red Herrings complicate the investigation.
- The identity of the murderer is revealed at the climax.
- When the murderer is punished, calm and normality are restored to the community.
Oedipus was the prince of the Greek city-state of Corinth. When an oracle informs him that he’s fated to slay his father and sleep with his mother, Oedipus abandons his royal life and flees Corinth, bent on assuring the prophecy never comes true. He drifts around having various adventures, including an encounter with an old man who runs him off the road with a chariot, which results in Oedipus killing the man in self-defense. Soon, Oedipus arrives in Thebes, a city terrorized by the monstrous Sphinx. Chaos alone reigns as no one can solve the creature’s riddle, and the Theban king, Laius, has disappeared, presumably devoured by the monster. Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, defeats the monster, and restores order. A grateful populace declares him king, a position Oedipus cements by marrying Laius’s widow Queen Jocasta. Jocasta and Oedipus rule wisely and have two daughters, Antigone and Ismane. Life is good….
But this is Greek tragedy.
All this is backstory well-known to Sophocles’s Athenian audience and is referred to in passing during the play. Oedipus Tyrannus itself begins many years into Oedipus’s reign at Thebes. A plague is decimating the city and a priest reveals to Oedipus that Apollo is angry because the fate of Laius remains unknown. Like a good king, Oedipus sets out to find out what happened to his predecessor, appease the god, and end the plague.
His investigation quickly reveals a rumor that Laius was not killed by the Sphinx but by bandits at the very spot where Oedipus encountered the charioteer he slew in self-defense. The implication is obvious to Oedipus and the audience. Here Sophocles throws out the first red herring in mystery literature. Oedipus suspects these rumors are false and being spread by Jocasta’s brother Creon in a bid to undermine him and seize the throne for himself. (Yep, we get a little bit of a game of thrones conspiracy in the play too. Take that J.R.R. Martin!). Oedipus soon grills Creon and a blind prophet with ambiguous results.
Slowly, further investigation seems to support the possibility that Oedipus himself was involved. That the old man may have been Laius. A shepherd, a witness to that long ago chariot conflict, is sent for. As they await the shepherd’s arrival, Sophocles throws in another red herring meant to waylay the audience from more dire truths to come. Word arrives that Oedipus’s father in Corinth has died. Sad news, but Oedipus is relieved. The old prophecy is proven false. In his relief, he reveals to Jocasta the nature of the oracle’s prediction.
It does not comfort Jocasta. In fact, it terrifies her. For reasons unspoken, she begs Oedipus not to see the shepherd and call off the investigation.
As does Creon.
Suddenly, everyone around him seems terrified of the truth. By his actions and dialogue Sophocles shows us Oedipus is beginning to suspect ungodly revelations lay ahead, but he must know. (An aside: One reason Oedipus Tyrannus is superior to Hamlet is the former’s tragic hero is destroyed by his actions, while the latter’s protagonist is ruined by inaction. Hamlet is the story of man who can’t make up his mind!)
When Oedipus refuses to abort the investigation, Jocasta runs into their bedroom and hangs herself. He mourns her. Yet, a distraught Oedipus presses on towards self-destruction. Sophocles implies Oedipus suspects the answer now but hopes-against-hope his suspicions are wrong. The power of the play comes from the mounting dread of what will be revealed, the unstoppable inertia of the main character’s investigation, and the hope that somehow a tragic outcome can be avoided.
The key witness, the shepherd, arrives. He confirms that charioteer was Laius cowardly fleeing the city in disguise from the Sphinx. But he has worse news. Years ago, he was given a deformed child by Jocasta to leave out for exposure on the mountain. (“Oedipus” means “Clubbed foot” in Greek). Unable to let the baby boy die, the shepherd gave the newborn to another shepherd, one in the employ of the Royal House of Corinth. The childless king and queen of Corinth adopted the club-footed boy as their own. Not wanting to have any challenge to their adopted son’s right to the Corinthian throne, they kept the child’s origins a secret even to the boy.
Oedipus was that child. Laius and Jocasta his biological parents.
Having unknowingly committed the two greatest taboos of his time, patricide and incest, Oedipus gouges out his own eyes, unwilling to look upon his daughters who are the product of an incestuous relationship with his own mother and abdicates the throne to Creon. After gaining Creon’s assurance to protect his daughters, Oedipus leaves Thebes, a blind, homeless beggar. The closing chorus assures us that Apollo is appeased, the pestilence dissipated, and normality returned to Thebes.
That’s Greek Tragedy for you. Aristotle said this was the best the genre ever produced.
It’s also a detective story. Crime. Investigation. Solution. Punishment. You can feel Sophocles’s influence in every investigative narrative where the hero is emotionally or mentally destroyed by the revelations he unearths from Lovecraftian horror-science-fiction to Chinatown to Brad Pitt’s detective shouting “What’s in the box?” at the end of Seven.
Sigmund Freud, of course, famously used Oedipus as the basis for his theory of the “Oedipus Complex” a term describing an impulse to kill one’s father and sleep with one’s mother. Yet, even Freud noted that the Oedipus character in Oedipus Tyrannus did not completely display these desires. Freud based it more on his own interpretation of the myths than the play. The hero of Sophocles’s story did everything in his power to avoid those unforgivable actions. (You know who might have had an Oedipus Complex? Our old friend Hamlet again. Freud considered naming the complex after that character too.) More importantly to our thesis, Fate twisted Oedipus’s life into a tragedy, but it was his investigative mind and relentless search for truth that revealed those horrendous crimes to himself and the world. Oedipus functioned narratively as the first detective in literary history. Alas, because of Fate and Freudian stigma I doubt the “Edgar Award” will turn into the “Sophocles Award” anytime soon.
But just know that a Greek dramatist was two millennia ahead of Edgar
And the rest of us mystery writers.
William Burton McCormick’s fiction appears in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere. He authored the war novel LENIN’S HAREM, historical thriller A STRANGER FROM THE STORM and co-wrote the espionage thriller KGB BANKER. He holds an AB in Ancient Studies from Brown University.
Thank you, Bill, for a great blog. Readers, as a gift to yourselves for the upcoming holidays, be sure and order both books today!