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The Bible, the Book of Daniel and Crime Fiction Narratives

June 6, 2011

Stephan Kessler's Daniel and King Cyrus in Bel's Temple

Attempts to trace the origins of crime fiction suffer from an infinite regression problem, for any author you name as the ‘first crime writer’ there will always be another writer who preceded him or her as a crime writer of sorts. However, many crime fiction and biblical scholars have named several stories appended to the Book of Daniel as the first crime stories, and it’s difficult to go back much further than biblical literature. The stories of ‘Bel and the Dragon’ and ‘Susanna’ are often regarded as more specifically crime narratives than other Bible stories such as Cain and Abel.

The first section of ‘Bel and the Dragon’ has been cited as the first locked room mystery. (The second section concerning the Dragon is a companion narrative very similar in style.) King Cyrus asks Daniel (a court favourite) whether he regards the Babylonian God Bel to be a living deity, citing that the idol of Bel in the temple consumes the food offerings made to it daily. Daniel responds that Bel is made of clay and bronze and therefore cannot eat. Cyrus demands that the priests prove that Bel eats the offerings. If they can prove Bel does eat the offerings, Daniel will be killed, if they cannot prove it, the priests will be killed. The offerings are left for Bel and the temple is sealed so no one can get in and out. Sensing foul play, Daniel, in the presence of the King, scatters ashes around the whole perimeter of the temple. The next day the perimeter of ashes has clearly been broken by the priests who have entered the temple through a secret door and taken the offerings for themselves. The priests and their entire families are put to death.

Aside from being a text that ridicules the worship of idols, ‘Bel and the Dragon’ is also an ancestor to the locked room mystery in that the
action is confined to a small setting wherein the crime takes place and from which the solution must come. Daniel plays detective determined to find a rational answer to the mystery as opposed to a superstitious one. The story is only part of the Catholic and Orthodox Biblical canon. In addition to the apocryphal stories connected to Daniel containing crime fiction elements, there are more parallels with crime fiction in the Book of Daniel taken as a whole (it is significant that E L Doctorow’s historical crime novel of the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg is titled The Book of Daniel). Other moments in the Book of Daniel that are reminiscent of crime fiction narrartives include the heroic protagonists surviving the elaborate death-traps of the fiery furnace and the lion’s den, and the villains of the piece receiving poetic justice when they are submitted to the fire and lions. Also, there are Daniel’s closing apocalyptic prophecies which deal with intrigue and take a rather cynical view of the inevitability of political corruption. Themes which still serve crime writers well to this day.

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