The Best Mystery and Detective Stories HTML version
JEAN FRANCOIS MARIE AROUET DE VOLTAIRE (1694-
Zadig the Babylonian
Introduction to Zadig the Babylonian - by the editor
A work (says the author) which performs more than it promises.
Voltaire never heard of a "detective story"; and yet he wrote the first in modern literature,
so clever as to be a model for all the others that followed.
He describes his hero Zadig thus: "His chief talent consisted in discovering the truth,"—
in making swift, yet marvelous deductions, worthy of Sherlock Holmes or any other of
the ingenious modern "thinking machines."
But no one would be more surprised than Voltaire to behold the part that Zadig now
"performs." The amusing Babylonian, now regarded as the aristocratic ancestor of
modern story-detectives, was created as a chief mocker in a satire on eighteenth-century
manners, morals, and metaphysics.
Voltaire breathed his dazzling brilliance into "Zadig" as he did into a hundred other
characters—for a political purpose. Their veiled and bitter satire was to make Europe
think—to sting reason into action—to ridicule out of existence a humbugging System of
special privileges. It did, via the French Revolution and the resulting upheavals. His prose
romances are the most perfect of Voltaire's manifold expressions to this end, which mark
him the most powerful literary man of the century.
But the arch-wit of his age outdid his brilliant self in "Zadig." So surpassingly sharp and
quick was this finished sleuth that his methods far outlived his satirical mission. His
razor-mind was reincarnated a century later as the fascinator of nations—M. Dupin. And
from Poe's wizard up to Sherlock Holmes, no one of the thousand "detectives," drawn in
a myriad scenes that thrill the world of readers, but owes his outlines, at least, to "Zadig."
"Don't use your reason—act like your friends—respect conventionalities —otherwise the
world will absolutely refuse to let you be happy." This sums up the theory of life that
Zadig satires. His comical troubles proceed entirely from his use of independent reason as
opposed to the customs of his times.
The satire fitted ancient Babylonia—it fitted eighteenth-century France—and perhaps the
reader of these volumes can find some points of contact with his own surroundings.
It is still piquant, however, to remember Zadig's original raison d'être. He happened to be
cast in the part of what we now know as "a detective," merely because Voltaire had been