The murder mystery is as old as murder. When the blood of Abel cried out for justice, the all-seeing Judge took up the case and Cain was caught in his crime. So it was, and so it is. All are Cain to one extent or another, murdering what is precious in their own lives. The most shocking thing about murder mysteries is that they not only reveal who the murderer is, but also what the murderer is. The mystery of life is discovered in the mystery of murder, for life is like a murder mystery—peppered with conundrums of the utmost moment where every person is a detective tracking down the murder of innocence, happiness, friendship, holiness: those things that make life meaningful but are so often slain. In more cases than not, the sudden revelation entails the detective finding himself the murderer, beset as most men are with sins they hardly see, and, if they did, they would rather be blind. “The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves,” writes Sophocles, and his rendition of Oedipus the King is a prototype of this principle of mystery and murder, for it does not present a case where the detective solves the mystery, but rather a case where the mystery solves the detective.
Oedipus the King is an Athenian tragedy by Sophocles, the great poet and dramatist, around 429 BC, being the first of a trilogy of Theban plays, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. The play assumes the mythical backstory, where Oedipus’ parents, the king and queen of Thebes, Laius and Jocasta, learn from an oracle that their newborn son would one day murder his father. Horrified at such a fate, they decide to destroy their child before such a destiny be accomplished. They pierce his ankles with an awl and hand the mutilated babe over to a servant to expose on a mountaintop to die. A shepherd, however, discovers the abandoned infant and rears him as his own, naming him “swollen foot,” or Oedipus.
When Oedipus grows to manhood, he overhears a drunkard claiming that he is not his parents’ son. Consulting with the Delphic Oracle for an answer, Oedipus too hears a dreadful prophecy that he will not only murder his father but also marry his mother. Upon learning this, the terrified Oedipus flees from his home in Corinth, determined to dodge his pronounced fate by placing as much distance between himself and his supposed parents as possible. On the road to Thebes, he meets Laius and a band of retainers, who shove the vagabond aside to make room for the passing lord. Without knowing who he has met, Oedipus flies into a rage and instantly kills Laius and his men at the crossroad, unknowingly fulfilling the first part of the prophecy.
When he finally arrives at Thebes, Oedipus discovers the city is being terrorized by the Sphinx, a monster whose expulsion is contingent upon someone solving her riddle. Queen Jocasta, in despair over the news of her husband’s death, promises the crown and her hand in marriage to the man who will unravel the Sphinx’s riddle and liberate the people. Oedipus, with nothing to lose, undertakes the challenge. “What has four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?” the Sphinx hissed at the traveler. “Man,” Oedipus replies, even as the Sphinx hurled herself to death off a cliff in fury. Oedipus claims the throne and the queen, thus fulfilling the second part of the prophecy, again unwittingly.
And so it begins.
Oedipus the King opens with a plague strangling the life out of Thebes. Creon, the brother of Jocasta, has learned from soothsayers that the city is being punished for harboring the murderer of the late King Laius. Oedipus zealously takes up the case, and questions the blind prophet Tiresias, only to hear that he, Oedipus, is the canker in the state. Denying this indictment in a blind frenzy of wrath, Oedipus disdains the seer and begins to gather the facts surrounding the untimely death of his predecessor. He follows the clues, formulates theories, interviews witnesses, and issues accusations until the terrible truth is unveiled and undeniable. What follows is a phantasmagoria of pain, violence, blood, and death.
Oedipus answered the riddling Sphinx simply with the word, “Man,” and thus, did man overthrow a monster; and further, was a new monster born—a monstrous man that thought his wisdoms made him wiser than a god. As a detective over-confidently following his own tragic trail, Oedipus is a fascinating archetype of the haughty investigator, for though he detects crime using his wits, throughout the twists and turns of his devastating plot, the impotence, instead of the omnipotence, of human reason is revealed. Man is blind until that moment he truly sees, and then his first impulse is often, like Oedipus, to gouge out his eyes and block the vision forever. If man fails to condition himself to be restrained in his conceit, he will, in one way or another, be blinded by the enlightenment his bravado spawns.
Though Oedipus the King is the original murder mystery, it is not quite like any other in the vast universe it initiated. In the words of Edmund Clerihew Bentley, President of the Detection Club (1936-1949): “It should be possible … to write a detective story in which the detective was recognizable as a human being and was not quite so much the ‘heavy sleuth.’ …Why not show up the fallibility of the Holmesian method?” Oedipus is just such a fallible detective, though he is not commonly catalogued among the gumshoes. Sophocles’ Oedipus stands apart from the brilliant, impersonal eccentrics made famous by Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot—detectives who sired a whole generation of “heavy sleuths” wielding logical powers based upon observation, deduction, and the art of detection.
Though a classical figure, Oedipus the King resists the classical forms and current fads of crime drama. The murder mystery of Oedipus and its solution, however, is no less agonizing and shocking today than it was in the fifth century. The mystery of Oedipus and the mystery of man is drawn out by murder, pointing to the tragedy that man is but an ephemeral, imperfect creature, dangling on the whims of fate and the wiles of felons, subject to unthinkable forces, lost in a puzzle of perplexing terror. And when the discovery of personal murder, of unspeakable, self-inflicted loss, is made, when man solves the crimes he has committed himself, he is faced with a new murder plot—a death to self, surrendering to the reality of human weakness, accepting the responsibility of being the murderer of his own good. Though many act in ignorance, and even innocence, there is an inherent guilt that all must own up to sooner or later. Self-sufficiency and self-importance are ever lurking assassins. There is within every man that incriminating drop of pride, that damning footprint of original sin, whose owner must be hunted down and apprehended.
Murder mysteries play with the power that people possess to challenge and change the course of history, to take the will of God into their own hands and wrench it to their own. As Oedipus shows, and as any detective knows, what is imperative is not what fate has in store, but what one does when it is discovered. Knowledge of the problem is, in the end, not as important as the knowledge of its solution. The solution may not be as intriguing as the problem, but it is a sober realization of reality—the trial of suffering and the balm hope. The mystery of the human being must shine through the most gruesome murder and replace destruction with dignity, for murder cries out with the mystery of immortality. Carried on by G.K. Chesterton’s unassuming Father Brown, Oedipus introduced the paradigm that every murder mystery must result in the discovery of both iniquity and redemption, for the sin is never as significant as the sinner.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Plague of Thebes” featuring Oedipus and Antigone, painted by Charles Jalabert in 1842.