Friday, May 20, 2016

Bel and the Dragon - The First Locked-Room Mystery

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The locked-room mystery is a sub-genre of detective fiction in which (usually) a murder is committed under circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the criminal to commit the crime and evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the room where the crime occured. The crime in question typically involves a crime scene with no indication as to how the intruder could have entered or left. Following other conventions of classic detective fiction, the reader is normally presented with the puzzle and all of the clues, and is encouraged to solve the mystery before the solution is revealed in a dramatic climax.

When we think of the early mystery genre we generally think of the late 19th century with Sherlock holmes. In the specific case of the Locked Room Mystery story, the apocryphal Old Testament story, Bel and the Dragon, is often viewed as one of the first, if not the oldest. Here then is that tale:

When King Astyages was laid with his fathers, Cyrus the Persian received his kingdom. 
And Daniel was a companion of the king, and was the most honored of his friends. 
Now the Babylonians had an idol called Bel, and every day they spent on it twelve bushels of fine flour and forty sheep and fifty gallons of wine.
The king revered it and went every day to worship it. But Daniel worshiped his own God. 
And the king said to him, "Why do you not worship Bel?" He answered, "Because I do not revere man-made idols, but the living God, who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all flesh."
The king said to him, "Do you not think that Bel is a living God? Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?"
Then Daniel laughed, and said, "Do not be deceived, O king; for this is but clay inside and brass outside, and it never ate or drank anything." 
Then the king was angry, and he called his priests and said to them, "If you do not tell me who is eating these provisions, you shall die.
But if you prove that Bel is eating them, Daniel shall die, because he blasphemed against Bel." And Daniel said to the king, "Let it be done as you have said."
Now there were seventy priests of Bel, besides their wives and children. And the king went with Daniel into the temple of Bel.
And the priests of Bel said, "Behold, we are going outside; you yourself, O king, shall set forth the food and mix and place the wine, and shut the door and seal it with your signet. 
And when you return in the morning, if you do not find that Bel has eaten it all, we will die; or else Daniel will, who is telling lies about us." 
They were unconcerned, for beneath the table they had made a hidden entrance, through which they used to go in regularly and consume the provisions. 
When they had gone out, the king set forth the food for Bel. Then Daniel ordered his servants to bring ashes and they sifted them throughout the whole temple in the presence of the king alone. Then they went out, shut the door and sealed it with the king's signet, and departed. 
In the night the priests came with their wives and children, as they were accustomed to do, and ate and drank everything. 
Early in the morning the king rose and came, and Daniel with him.
And the king said, "Are the seals unbroken, Daniel?" He answered, "They are unbroken, O king." 
As soon as the doors were opened, the king looked at the table, and shouted in a loud voice, "You are great, O Bel; and with you there is no deceit, none at all." 
Then Daniel laughed, and restrained the king from going in, and said, "Look at the floor, and notice whose footsteps these are."
The king said, "I see the footsteps of men and women and children." 
Then the king was enraged, and he seized the priests and their wives and children; and they showed him the secret doors through which they were accustomed to enter and devour what was on the table.
Therefore the king put them to death, and gave Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed it and its temple.

Other early Locked-Room Mysteries you might want to peruse are Edgar Allan Poe's _The Murders in the Rue Morgue_, Israel Zangwill's _The Big Bow Mystery_, Arthur Conan Doyle's _The Adventure of the Speckled Band_ and Gaston Leroux's _Mystery of the Yellow Room_.

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