03 September 2017

Voltaire and Detective Fiction

by Leigh Lundin


Candide is where most high schoolers discover Voltaire. Due to his criticisms of political and religious topics, he had become adept at wording and enjoyed word play.

François-Marie Arouet : Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet : Voltaire
Oddly enough, students didn’t giggle overmuch about characters dining on sliced butt, but I recall my father and Aunt Rae debating the name Cunégonde. My Aunt Rae detected sex in pretty much everything. Was the novella’s love interest named after Queen Cunigunde of Luxembourg or was her name a sly sexual parts reference? Both, it turns out if Wikipedia is to believed.

Candide’s satire and irony appealed to me. Dabbling in other Voltaire writings, I found he wrote one of the earliest works that might be described as science fiction.


Moreover, I happily discovered Voltaire gave us one of the earliest examples of detective fiction, or at the least, deductive reasoning, Zadig, ou La Destinée (Zadig, or The Book of Fate). Within, Voltaire categorizes those who observe and deduce versus people who intuit.

Zadig, both in book and eponymous character, represents a mirror image of Candide. Candide revels in his naïveté and seeks happiness in ignorance. Zadig cannot help but consider his own worth and position in the world, but also those of his fellow man and woman. Like Zadig, the author was twice imprisoned for his liberal views and values. Little wonder the Enlightenment is so strongly associated with Voltaire.

Voltaire published Zadig in 1747. To provide a little literary context, in 1748 John Cleland would bring the famed erotic novel Fanny Hill to press. The following year, 1749, a magistrate named Henry Fielding would become known for two outstanding events, the publishing of Tom Jones and the founding of the Bow Street Runners, forerunner of Scotland Yard. The American Revolution was still a quarter of a century off, but that year a thousand men rioted in Boston objecting to forced conscription into the British Royal Navy, defying Admiral Knowles’ threat to level Boston to the ground. The flame of liberty had been relit.

Detective Work

I managed to wring a college paper out of this discovery and I thought I was more or less alone in making the connection. The Internet is a wonderful tool. As I sat down to share this today, I find I wasn’t alone at all. The Web includes a handful of articles that touch upon the concept. At least one book embraces the notion, Great Detective Stories: From Voltaire To Poe, edited by Joseph Lewis French.

Way back in 1976, the Jeremy Brett who would become Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself, read Zadig the Detective in an episode of the BBC’s long-lived Jackanory story series. Only a reference to the reading appears on-line, not the recording itself, which we may hope is not lost.

A public domain reading by ‘Davinia’ appears on YouTube, not the most convenient form for an audiobook. I’ve attempted to make those files available in audiobook format. If you’re a reader who doesn’t mind thee, thy, and thou, you’ll appreciate the wit of a great writer. Download an ebook or audiobook and enjoy the seduction of deduction.

Downloads (public domain)
Apple iTunes, iPhone, iPad, MacAndroid (and iPhone, iPad, etc.)
Zadig.m4b.zip full manuscript, zippedZadig.mp3.zip full manuscript, zipped
Other LibriVox recording.m4bZadig… for women only

multiple formats
Zadig 1910 translationZadig 1961 translation


  1. Interesting stuff! Proving once again there is little really new.

  2. Janice, I enjoy Zadig more than Candide. Voltaire is a master of show-not-tell, using numerous devices of literature, logic, and rhetoric to get his point across while entertaining the open-minded.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Leigh! I've talked about Zadig in my survey classes on mystery fiction, but I've never assigned it as readings (and honestly have only read excerpts myself, never the full text). Really appreciate seeing this in the spotlight here at SleuthSayers today!

  4. Thanks, Art. I'd forgotten much of the story, remembering only a few things like the prt that drew upon the Arabian Serindip princes story. This time I'm listening to Darvina's audiobook reading above, and find it remarkably easy. I haven't tried twentieth century translations, so being read to bypasses the unfortunately long paragraphs and unusual abbreviations (to modern eyes) derived from early versions. It's one of the reasons why my own writing leans towards visually short paragraphs and chapters.

  5. I thought Zadig was a Woody Allen movie.

  6. O'Neil, (sputtering) I think that's Zaftig.

  7. Zadig influenced a lot, but it in turn was influenced by the tales from 1001 Nights, which had been translated into French back in 1704. (On the other hand, there are stories in 1001 Nights which also show up in The Canterbury Tales and in the Decameron. I think it just proves that some stories - mostly about tricksters - are very, very old.)

  8. Eve, my father loved both the Decameron and Scheherazade, and I know the Persian princes story is derived from tales like 1001 Nights. However, I can't think of where these appeared in the story-telling Caterbury Tales… but then I was seduced by the Wyf of Bath.

  9. Leigh, I'd say that actually that the nub of The Reeve's Tale is very old (there's a lot of switching beds in the 1001 Nights, too), and scholars say that The Merchant's Tale (another fooling the husband story) goes back to 1001 Nights.
    It's a small world, and a long time, and there are only so many plots, so it's all in the way we tell 'em.


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