Simanaitis Says

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ON EARLY SLEUTHING

MANY CONSIDER Sherlock Holmes the world’s first detective. With more than a little hubris, a while back I proposed otherwise in noting that Kumedera Danjō, the hero in the Kabuki play Kenuki, 1742, preceded Holmes in sleuthing by 139 years.

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Kenuki, Kabuki detective tale, 1742. Here, the floating tweezers give sleuth Kumedera Danjō a crucial clue.

Having recently finished Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, Book 2) and its goings-on concerning Henry VIII, I got to thinking about detectives in his or his daughter Elizabeth I’s era. What with serial spouse replacement, popish plots and espionage taking place on the royal level, wouldn’t there be action for sixteenth century sleuthing? Clearly, some research was called for.

Henry’s Thomas Cromwell and Elizabeth’s Sir Francis Walsingham were evidently up to their high-necked jerkins in intrigue. On the other hand, these guys and their kind were government spooks. James Bonds, not Sam Spades.

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Left, Sir Francis Walsingham, c. 1532 – 1590; right, Thomas Cromwell, c. 1485 – 1540; English government spooks.

No. Here I’m seeking freelancers.

Nicholas Bracewell is in the running. He’s the bookholder and amateur sleuth in the Elizabethan Theatre mystery series of Edward Marston (aka Keith Miles). Bookhandler was the word describing the producer/stage manager in Elizabethan theater. And Bracewell (a great name, eh?) came to the Westfield’s Men through an interesting backstory, circumnavigating the globe with Drake 1577 – 1580.

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The Malevolent Comedy: An Elizabethan Theater Mystery Featuring Nicholas Bracewell (Elizabethan Theater Mysteries), by Edward Marston, 2005, one of 16 in the author’s Elizabethan Theatre series. Image from goodreads.com.

Bracewell shows exemplary skills of detection in saving his patron, Lord Westfield, and his troupe of actors from all manner of Elizabethan mayhem. He’s sort of an Elizabethan Nick Charles of The Thin Man, without Nora.

On the other hand, I’m seeking a professional sleuth here, not a dabbler.

Eugène François Vidocq clearly meets this criterion. A real person (thus avoiding matters of Watson’s veracity), Vidocq started as a criminal, serving time in the Tour Saint-Pierre lockup in Lille, France, in 1795. He escaped several times, masquerading as a sailor once, as a nun another time, got recaptured, escaped again, caught again and finally turned informant in 1809.

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Eugène François Vidocq, 1775 – 1857, French criminal, criminalist, detective, founder of Sûreté Nationale. Portrait by Achille Devéria.

Having found God—or at least avoiding a death penalty leveed in absentia—Vidocq spent 21 more months in stir squealing on fellow inmates. His “good” turns got him sprung in 1811, by which time Vidocq certainly knew French criminality. He immediately became a private detective, setting up an informal plainclothes unit, the Brigade de la Sûreté. In time, with the encouragement of Emperor Napoleon, it evolved into the Sûreté Nationale, which exists to this day as France’s national police.

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Boston Blackie (Volume 1), by Jack Boyle. Boston Blackie is a jewel-thief/safecracker-turned-detective in stories, films, radio and television.

In a sense, Vidocq is a precursor of Boston Blackie, “… enemy to those who make him an enemy, friend to those who have no friend.” However, thriving as Vidocq did in the nineteenth century, he’s a Vidocq-come-lately in my search for early sleuthing.

Here’s early: Oedipus the King, Athenian chronicle by Sophocles dating from around 429 B.C. Oedipus Rex and his backstory have all the makings of noir: a mysterious prophecy, a supposed orphan, an unsolved murder, sleeping around (spoiler alert: no, you know this already…), suicide and self-destruction. Along the way, Oedipus certainly displays skills of detection, his solving the Riddle of the Sphinx, his gathering witnesses of his father’s death, his hard-core reactions to it all.

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Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, English translation by William Butler Yeats, film directed by Tyrone Guthrie, starring Douglas Campbell and Eleanor Stuart, 1957.

On the other hand, Oedipus’s detective skills are only peripheral to the larger issues of fate, free will and his peculiar taste in the opposite sex.

No. I’m sticking with Kumedera Danjō, the 1742 Kabuki sleuth. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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