Reading The Rector of Veilbye: the First Modern Crime Novel

The Rector of Veilbye, by Danish author Steen Steensen Blicher, is considered the first modern work of crime fiction. Published in 1829, it predates Poe’s mystery short stories by a little over a decade, and Sherlock Holmes by almost fifty years. The story is based on an actual Danish murder case from 1629. It’s well-enough loved in Denmark to have been made into a movie there three times; the second version was Denmark’s first sound film.

Jpg 1Poster for the 1922 silent film version, known in English as The Hand of Fate
Image: Danish Film Institute

Unlike Sherlock Holmes stories or The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Rector of Veilbye isn’t a whodunit or puzzle-style murder mystery. It’s much more like a modern psychological crime story, albeit with a twist at the end. The story is told first as the journal entries of Erik Sørensen, the district judge of Veilbye, and then as the journal entries of the pastor of Aalso, the parish next to Veilbye. Sørensen is engaged to the daughter of Soren Quist, the rector of Veilbye, which puts Sørensen in a very awkward position when the temperamental Quist is accused of murdering one his servants in a fit of rage.

Voice-wise, there’s no clear distinction between Sørensen’s journal entries and the pastor of Aalso’s; the conceit of telling the story through a journal robs the narrative of much of the in-the-moment atmosphere and descriptive richness a modern reader expects. At first, I thought the novella was going to be a very dry read. But by the time the story got to its climax, I was blinking back the tears. I really felt sorry for both Sørensen and Quist, two men both trying to do the right and moral thing in a terrible situation.

The center of the story is a issue that is both real and still current: false or coerced confession. We tend to think of false confession as the outcome of torture, like in the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials. But as police officer Jim Trainium wrote in the L.A. Times in 2008, suspects can be intimidated into confessing crimes they didn’t commit, even without overt violence or threats of violence to their person.

Of the 220 wrongful convictions in the U.S. that have been overturned based on DNA evidence, nearly 25% involved a false confession or false incriminating statements, according to the Innocence Project. In each of those cases, DNA proved that the confession was false.

And often (in reality as well as in fiction), the price of a false confession is a wrongful death.

Mark Twain tackled the story again in 1896, as Tom Sawyer, Detective. A Danish schoolmaster accused Twain of plagiarism, which Twain denied, arguing that he didn’t read Danish. He claimed to be basing the story on an old Swedish criminal trial. It’s a plausible denial, but the stories are very very much alike, right down to the pastor’s (Tom Sawyer’s Uncle Silas) incriminating green robe, just like Quist’s green robe. I suspect that Twain probably came across a retelling of The Rector of Veilbye, described as if it were a real-life crime story.

Tom Sawyer, Detective is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, with Tom as Holmes and Huck Finn as Watson, so it’s got more of a whodunit feel to it, along with gangsters and diamond robbers for good measure. It’s a way more colorful book — Huck Finn as narrator has a distinct and sympathetic voice, and Tom’s a definite personality, too. It’s a bit forced, though. Uncle Silas, when last we saw him in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was “cheerful and simple-hearted and pudd’n-headed and good,” as Huck put it — not the kind of man liable to cosh another person over the head with a spade in a fit of temper. And would a judge really let a fifteen year old boy (Tom) be his uncle’s defense lawyer?

And then the judge he looked down over his pulpit and says:

“My boy, did you SEE all the various details of this strange conspiracy and tragedy that you’ve been describing?”

“No, your honor, I didn’t see any of them.”

“Didn’t see any of them! Why, you’ve told the whole history straight through, just the same as if you’d seen it with your eyes. How did you manage that?”

Tom says, kind of easy and comfortable:

“Oh, just noticing the evidence and piecing this and that together, your honor; just an ordinary little bit of detective work; anybody could ‘a’ done it.”

“Nothing of the kind! Not two in a million could ‘a’ done it. You are a very remarkable boy.”

No, the judge wasn’t being sarcastic. Unlike the original, Tom Sawyer, Detective has a happy ending. It’s the American Way, after all.

If you like Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce, you’ll probably enjoy Tom Sawyer, Detective. I liked it well enough, but I prefer Blicher’s version. To me, all the additional layers of Twain’s story — the familiar protagonists, the implicit references to Sherlock Holmes, the additional gangster-related storyline — obscure the more interesting human drama. I preferred the bare-bones version.

They’re both short novellas; read them both and decide which one you prefer for yourself.

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