Sitting around the ol' campfire the other night as the temperature hovered just north of zero, the inevitable question arose: Who wrote the first American crime novel? Having spent much of my life in hot pursuit of a response to just that very inquiry, I promptly perked up my ears and spilled out my brains.
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Now, this response isn't 100 percent guaranteed accurate, but all smoking guns seem to point to an author named Charles Brockden Brown for having written the first true American crime novel. Many literary historians consider his 1798 tome, Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, to be the primary, if not the most exemplary, suspect. According to the Website CrimeReads:
"The story is written in a quasi-epistolary form, mostly in letters from its titular hero to the sister of his murdered friend, Waldegrave."
The tale concerns a murderer, a murdered man, the murdered man's sister, and a friend of the deceased (our hero) determined to find and bring to justice the blaggard who did the dirty deed for the sister's peace of mind. The plot also involves a great deal of sleepwalking, both on behalf of the murderer and the sleuth on his tail. Sounds promising, doesn't it?
Hold on, though. Before you run out and search for a copy for your next winter's night read, here's an example from the book's very first chapter of what you can expect:
"I sit down, my friend, to comply with thy request. At length does the impetuosity of my fears, the transports of my wonder, permit me to recollect my promise and perform it. At length am I somewhat delivered from suspense and from tremors. At length the drama is brought to an imperfect close, and the series of events that absorbed my faculties, that hurried away my attention, has terminated in repose."
Still intent upon dedicating a few joyous hours to the task of plowing through the rest of the book? If so, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din. Happy reading!
As for me, I would prefer to settle in with the fantastically lyrical and stylishly clever whodunnit, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by the father of the short story, Edgar Allen Poe. Although Murders is hardly long enough to be a novel, it is widely accredited as one of the earliest examples of a crime/detective story in the arsenal of the Master of the Macabre and the inventor of the modern-day genre.
At least, that's what I tell anyone foolish enough to ask me.
Until it comes up in polite company again ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. His Website is at www.djherda.org. You can also check out his column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack. It's free; it's entertaining; it's informative, and it runs weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)