Three literary classics, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Crime and Punishment, employ the basic formula of the murder mystery novel: They open with a murder and an investigator who is determined to find its perpetrator; next they introduce a number of suspects and a series of clues to help or red herrings to hinder the investigator; and finally they end with the exposure and punishment of the murderer.

While this format is present in these works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky, an examination of the ways in which these “literary giants” tweak and transform it might be instructive to some contemporary murder mystery writers.


1. Precipitating Murder: The play begins with the reopening of a cold case: the twenty-year-old murder of King Laius of Thebes. Laius’s body and those of four of his five attendants had been found on a highway a distance from Thebes. However, only a cursory attempt had been made to identify their killers because of a more pressing matter: The city was under attack by a monster, the Sphinx.

2. Investigator: Oedipus, the present king of Thebes, is told by an oracle that Laius’s murderer is living in the city and that a plague will ravage it until this criminal is banished. Oedipus vows that even though he has no ties to Laius, except that he had married his widow Jocasta, he will ferret out the person responsible for “this ancient crime” (line 110 of the play).

3. Suspects: Three suspects are established early in the play. A year after the death of Laius, the missing attendant returned to Thebes to tell Jocasta, now wed to Oedipus, that Laius had been killed by highway brigands. Oedipus wonders aloud, “Were they bribed to commit this crime by someone here in Thebes”? (125-26)

The second suspect is Creon, Oedipus’s brother-in-law and the patron of an old blind seer Tiresias. When Oedipus seeks this wise man’s advice, Tiresias begs him not to continue his probing into Laius’s death. Temerariously, Oedipus accuses Tiresias of withholding information to protect Creon.

He contends that his brother-in-law is jealous because Oedipus, a young Corinthian prince visiting Thebes six months after Laius’s murder, had solved a riddle, thereby ridding the city of the Sphinx. For performing this great deed, Oedipus replaced the childless Laius as Thebes’ new king, a position which, he claims, Creon had desired. A quick-tempered Oedipus asserts that his brother-in-law plotted the assassination of Laius and now seeks “to overthrow me” and become king himself (360-85).

Equally infuriated by these accusations against him and Creon, Tiresias makes two charges which the Thebans ridicule as outrageous and impossible: Oedipus himself had slain Laius, and further Laius was Oedipus’s father.

With these three suspects introduced, the focus of plot veers sharply: Mentally agitated by Tiresias’s accusation, Oedipus turns his attention to gathering proof that he is not the murderer of Laius, who, he argues, could not be his father since he is the son of the present king of Corinth.

4. Clues and Red Herrings: As evidence comes in contrarily separating and tying Oedipus to both to the murder and to the family of Laius, Oedipus uses the wording often employed by the investigator in a murder mystery: “Now is the time to solve the mystery once and for all” and “I cannot let these clues slip from my hands, / I must track down the secret of my birth [whether Laius was his father]” (1002-03 and 1011-12).

Succeeding characters, including Oedipus’s wife Jocasta, seek to relieve the king’s fears by offering proof that he could not have murdered Laius or be his son. However, in doing so, they mention some seemingly inconsequential details that convince Oedipus of his guilt: Their palliatives are turned into convicting clues.

The major red herring is disclosed: The attendant who had witnessed and survived the assault on Laius twenty years ago had concocted his account about a band of robbers. Fleeing from the attack, he had gone into hiding, afraid of being branded a coward. A year later, when he returned to Thebes, he found that Oedipus had become king. Recognizing him as the one who had killed Laius and the four other retainers, but terrified of the new king’s wrath, he had lied to Jocasta about the bandits.

Oedipus immediately makes the connection between the murder of Laius and a violent incident from his youth, which he had apparently blocked from his mind: On a highway he had been insulted and attacked by a quarrelsome traveler and his servants. In defending himself, a rage-driven Oedipus had slain these aggressors.

5. Exposure and Punishment of the Murderer: Oedipus realizes that the first part of the seer Tiresias’s accusation (that Oedipus was the murderer of Laius) is true. The second part (that Laius was Oedipus’s father) is torturously revealed. A social crime (murder) is superseded by a familial sin (incest): Oedipus, who had unknowingly murdered his father, had unwittingly married his mother. Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus, who blinds himself, is banished from Thebes (1210-1465).


1. Precipitating Murder: Like Oedipus, Hamlet begins with the discussion of the death of a king, Prince Hamlet’s father, two months before the play begins. However, no one suspects that he had been murdered since his successor King Claudius had reported that he had died from a snakebite.

As Hamlet is mourning, the ghost of his father appears and charges that Claudius, his brother, had poured poison in his ear while he slept in the palace garden. Hamlet instinctively believes the ghost, but warns himself that this supernatural being could have been sent by the devil to trick him into killing an innocent man, his uncle.

2. Investigator: Hamlet ruefully assumes the mantle of the conscientious investigator of this possible murder, and act 1 ends with his determination to amass more substantial proof against his uncle.

3. Suspects: Just as Hamlet suspects Claudius to be the murderer of his father, so Claudius suspects that Hamlet is plotting revenge against him. Their joint suspicion dictates the strategy each uses as both search for clues to establish the other’s guilt.

4. Clues and Red Herrings: Believing that a disguise will allow him to better gather proof, Hamlet pretends to be crazy—a red herring to throw Claudius off his scent. (Some critics believe that at points the agitated Hamlet borders on insanity.)

When Hamlet realizes that Claudius is certain he is merely feigning madness, he decides upon another approach: He writes a short play which reenacts the ghost’s description of how Claudius had poisoned him. “The play’s the thing,” Hamlet avers, by which “I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (2.2.605-06). When the play is performed at court, the frenetic reaction of Claudius convinces Hamlet that he finally has the proof his uncle murdered his father.

Aware of how dangerous the young prince has become, Claudius decides to have him sent abroad. Hustled aboard a ship, Hamlet soon discovers the most conclusive proof: A letter sent by Claudius to an ally king which orders him to have Hamlet executed as soon as the vessel lands.

Hamlet escapes from the ship and returns to Denmark. Claudius’s next scheme is to have the prince killed in a friendly swordsmanship competition. The king has a plan, a backup, and even a backup to the backup plan: Hamlet’s opponent in the duel, a skillful swordsman and Claudius’s loyal pawn, is secretly to remove the blunting button from the tip of his sword and “accidentally” stab Hamlet. This wound will doubly be fatal since the weapon’s point has been smeared with a deadly poison. Additionally Hamlet will be offered a goblet of poisoned wine.

5. Exposure and Punishment of the Murderer: Even though Hamlet must be aware of the risks involved, he agrees to participate in the duel. The setting of the match seemingly governs his decision: Hamlet does not wish simply to kill his father’s murderer, but to expose Claudius’s guilt publicly before all the royal courtiers. The dueling exhibition gives him the opportunity and also the weapons which he can use against the king.

Hamlet does succeed in killing Claudius, but at the loss of his own life. As he is dying, he exacts a vow from his friend Horatio “to tell my story” to the royal court about how his father was murdered by Claudius and how Hamlet dedicated his life to avenging that murder, a pledge which Horatio keeps (5.2.352-85).

Such public disclosure of a murderer will similarly provide the resolution to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.


1. Precipitating Murder: Crime and Punishment opens with an ex-university student Rodion Raskolnikov plotting the robbery and murder of Alyona, a repellent old pawnbroker who preys upon her clients. However, while Raskolnikov is committing this crime, the victim’s sister comes in. Panicking, he also murders her, a simpleton.

2. Investigator: While Oedipus was almost rabid in the pursuit of his investigation and Hamlet conducted his by fits and starts, the detective in Dostoevsky’s novel proceeds by indirection. Chief Investigator Porfiry Petrovitch does not even appear as a speaking character until halfway through the novel (Part 3, chap. 5) although several times others allude to him as the detective heading up the investigation of the double murder. He has only three meetings with Raskolnikov (3.5, 4.5, and 6.2).

At these the genial Porfiry follows a pattern: He begins with small talk or an apology for bothering Raskolnikov, but quickly works into the conversation a new discovery which seemingly implicates the young man. It is at their second meeting (4.5) that Porfiry explains his preferred method of conducting an investigation: Do not arrest a suspect early, but give that person time and space to anguish over the crime and to magnify each speck of possibly incriminatory evidence. This psychological self-torment will lead most criminals to confess on their own volition, Porfiry maintains.

3. Suspects: Crime and Punishment provided a model for the TV show Columbo, which opens with the murderer revealed. It also has an investigator who, although late arriving, like Columbo engages the suspect in a cat-and-mouse game. Porfiry’s goal, however, is to let Raskolnikov’s own conscience be the “cat” that drives the “mousy”—from the inspector’s prospective—young man to confession.

Although the reader knows Raskolnikov is guilty, the police do not. They concentrate first on the pawnbroker’s recent clients as likely suspects. It is the chief inspector who notices that of her customers Raskolnikov stood out: He was the only one who did not register a claim with the police for the items he had pawned.

However, just as Porfiry is focusing on Raskolnikov, a startling development occurs: The third day after the murders, a painter who was working at Alyona’s building on the night of the murders tries to pawn a pair of her earrings. When the police move in to question him, the workman attempts suicide, an action which convinces them that he is guilty.

4. Clues and Red Herrings: The subsequent arrest of the painter becomes a fortuitous red herring for Raskolnikov since it seemingly diverts the police from considering him a suspect. Emboldened at the prospect of having committed the perfect murder, the twenty-three year-old former university student, often delirious from drink and not eating, begins to act recklessly. He taunts the police by leaving clues that they have arrested the wrong person. For instance, Raskolnikov openly jokes about how he would have committed the murders if he had been the killer (2.6).

He even revisits the scene of the crime, pretending that he plans to rent the pawnbroker’s apartment. The details of his banter about being the murderer and his sojourn to the apartment reach Porfiry. That the inspector does not bring these up at their first meeting slightly disconcerts Raskolnikov (3.5).

The next day at their second, which takes place in the inspector’s office, however, not only does Porfiry mention Raskolnikov’s visit to the building, but he also apparently stages a scene (similar to Hamlet’s play) in which the arrested painter bursts into his office and, with Raskolnikov as a witness, surprisingly confesses to the murders (4.5).

As Raskolnikov leaves this meeting, convinced that just as he has been playing games with the police, Porfiry is now playing them with him, he begins to realize and then aggrandize the imperfections in his perfect crime.

He also starts to agonize over the idea of an innocent man being punished for his actions. The torment of his guilty conscience leads him to confess to his girlfriend Sonya that he had committed the murders. She tells him that he can achieve peace only by confessing to his crime and accepting the court’s punishment (5.4).

As Raskolnikov debates what he should do, Porfiry visits his apartment, their last meeting, three days after the second (6.2). The inspector says that he has uncovered the reason the painter admitted to a crime he did not commit. He is a member of a religious sect that holds it to be supremely virtuous to suffer Christ-like for another’s sin. He will soon retract his confession, Porfiry avers. Certain of Raskolnikov’s guilt, but acknowledging he has no solid proof, the inspector tells him that if he confesses, the court may accept a plea of temporary insanity and give him a mild sentence.

5. Exposure and Punishment of the Murderer: After Porfiry leaves, Raskolnikov decides to make a public confession to the police, but not to the inspector. Rather at the police station he approaches a lieutenant who had earlier befriended him and declares, “I killed the old pawnbroker and her sister Lizaveta with an axe” (6.8).

The epilogue of the novel describes the trial and Raskolnikov’s lenient sentence: eight years in a Siberian prison. The loyal Sonya follows him to this frozen land. At her encouragement, Raskolnikov begins to read the New Testament, an undertaking which heralds both his repentance and his spiritual regeneration gained through her love.

In these three classic works, the basic formula of the murder mystery is present. However, some major differences are apparent. In Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Crime and Punishment, just as important as the solution of the crime are the ideas which arise during the pursuit of the murderer and the changes which the individual and society undergo as a result of the murder.

In essence, the physical act of murder is shown to have metaphysical consequences. “Murder most foul” destroys not just a person, but humanity itself at various levels:

—The social order: Under the murderer Claudius, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (1.4.90), which the noble Hamlet must combat. At the opening of Oedipus, Theban society is being ravished by a plague because it swept under the carpet the murder of its previous king. The rampant corruption and injustice of Tsarist Russia Dostoevsky symbolizes in an early scene where to the laughter of many in a drunken crowd an old horse is horribly beaten to death (1.5).

—The human psyche: The murder victim suffers physically, but the perpetrator, the investigator, or both are mentally affected by the murder: Hamlet’s “madness,” Raskolnikov’s delirium, and Oedipus’s uncontrollable fits of rage.

—Religion: At or near the end of these three classic works, an affirmation of religion occurs, thereby signaling a supernatural condemnation of murder. Creon’s last speeches in Oedipus assert the proper relationship between mortals and immortals, one which Oedipus violated through his overweening pride. Hamlet goes to the fifth-act duel admitting that he cannot defeat Claudius by himself, but needs the help of God: “There’s a divinity which shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (5.2.10-11). After confessing to his murder, Raskolnikov finds spiritual freedom and religious redemption in a Siberian prison.

I believe the murder mystery genre can be invigorated not by tampering with its framework (murder, clues, and exposure of the murderer), but by providing it with a more philosophic underpinning. To close with Platonic terms, contemporary murder mystery novelists should examine not just the “physical” act but the “idea” of murder.

William Tarvin
Bill Tarvin, a retired professor, is the author of the murder mystery novel The Mysterious Plus (2013). Available at his website or through Google Books, it manifests his ideas about the philosophical murder mystery novel discussed in this article. Tarvin has also published essays, principally on tragedy, in such leading scholarly journals as Modern Language Journal, Essays in Literature, and The Journal of Reading.