Edgar Alan Poe and the Origins of Mystery Fiction

Detective Stories – Edgar Alan Poe and the Origins of Mystery Fiction

by Steven Rachman


“These tales of ratiocination,” Edgar Allan Poe explained to a correspondent in 1846, “owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key.” He was referring to the three stories he wrote in the early 1840s featuring C. Auguste Dupin-“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842-3), and “The Purloined Letter” (1841). The “new key” was, of course, what we have come to call “detective fiction,” detective stories and Poe, as the form’s first truly modern practitioner, was aware that his stories were enjoying an unprecedented popularity with the reading public. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe introduced readers to a Parisian polymath, C. Auguste Dupin, a man endowed with preternatural analytical faculties, a man for whom ordinary men “wore windows in their bosoms.” The unnamed narrator of these stories is one of these ordinary men. Dupin’s powers are such that not only can he seemingly read the narrator’s very thoughts at the instant he is thinking them, but he can explain the whole chain of reasoning that led to his thoughts merely by observing the sequence of expressions on his face.
Coming across the case in the newspaper of the grisly killings of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in their apparently locked lodgings in the Rue Morgue, Dupin displays his analytical prowess and unravels the seemingly insoluble mystery. Sifting through various accounts and considering potential suspects, he exposes the myopia of the local prefect of police and exonerates Adolphe Le Bon, the man imprisoned for the crime, by obtaining a full confession from a sailor who had been in possession of a razor-wielding “Orang-Outang” which had escaped and killed the two women.

Even in outline, readers will recognize many of the features of the detective genre in its classic form-the metropolitan setting, a violent crime taking place in an apparently locked room, the vain, befuddled law enforcement official, the wronged suspect, the confession, the cleverly convoluted solution (in which murder turns out not to be murder), and the masculine camaraderie of a supercilious gentleman mastermind and his credulous companion/narrator. (By the third tale, pipe-smoking would make its appearance.) Poe had given the form its initial shape, created its first great detective, and was aware that the tales were popular, yet wrote no more Dupin stories after 1845.
In fact, Poe was slightly annoyed at the attention paid to the Dupin stories at the expense of his other literary works. “I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious,” he explained, “but people think them more ingenious than they are-on account of their method and air of method. In ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ for instance, where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.” Sounding like a harbinger of Edmund Wilson-who wrote a complaint against detective fiction entitled “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?”- Poe asserted that the originality of these stories was deceptive and overrated. Dupin was a supposititious fraud designed to cheat the reader. The tales were little more than old tunes played in a new key. Poe, orphaned at a young age and later alienated from his stepfather, was damning with faint praise the child of his own imagination.

One of the apparent paradoxes of literary history is how Poe, an author whose fiction is, as J. Gerald Kennedy has observed, “preponderantly devoted to terror, madness, disease, death, and revivification,” came to invent a form committed to reason and solution. And having invented it and recognized its commercial potential, why did this author, notably strapped for cash, abandon it? Part of the answer lies in Poe’s abiding themes of terror, haunting, the irrational, and a skepticism about all forms of certainty. Prior to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” Poe had written what has been labeled “an x-ray of a detective story” entitled “The Man of the Crowd” (1840). It recounts an incident in which a flâneur who fancies himself an expert in the reading of faces and social types-Dupin’s specialty-pursues an old man through the labyrinthine streets of London for 24 hours, convinced that he is “the type and genius of deep crime,” only to learn nothing of consequence about the man. In “The Oblong Box” (1844) and “The Sphinx” (1846), tales written after the first Dupin stories, Poe employs a series of glaring misinterpretations to satirize the certainty of deductive processes. And in “Thou Art the Man” (1844), which some have called the first comic detective story, Poe has the protagonist use a hoax to trick the murderer into confession, emphasizing gamesmanship over analysis.

But even more importantly, Poe never conceived of the Dupin stories as belonging to the genre of detective fiction; he never referred to them as such. Rather he used the term “tales of ratiocination” in order to emphasize the delineation of a chain of logical reasoning and analysis. For him, the detective was not the central focus of the story, but a vehicle for tracing a train of thought, and the tale itself a way to analyze, “that moral activity which disentangles” as he writes in his prefatory comments to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It was an interest in logic and not in the personality of the fictional detective that led Poe to write his detective fiction. He left it to others, notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to explore the character of the detective, of which his deductive methods would be but one facet. Or, as Doyle has Sherlock Holmes comment in A Study in Scarlet, “‘Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow . . . He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.'” Doyle cagily puts his finger on a point with which Poe would have agreed. The supposititious Dupin would never become the phenomenon that Sherlock Holmes became, because he was solely an expression of the analytical capacity of the intellect-a ratiocinative device.

In many ways, Poe’s own legendary life, with its mass of contradictions and tragic pattern of self-destructive behavior mixed with astonishing literary creativity, overshadows the analytical ingenuity of the fictional Dupin. A writer often claimed by the American South, he was born in Boston, Massachusetts in January 1809 and spent the main part of his career toiling away for magazines in northern cities such as Philadelphia and New York. A child of actors, orphaned before the age of three and taken in by John Allan, a prosperous merchant from Richmond, Virginia, Poe eventually alienated himself from his adoptive family and married into his birth family, wedding his Aunt Maria’s thirteen year old daughter, Virginia Clemm. His life was often a mixture of privilege, expulsion, and penury. Educated as a boy in Richmond and for a time at Stoke Newington near London, he did a stint at the University of Virginia, excelling in some subjects but also sliding into the role of the wastrel son-running up gambling debts only to find that his stepfather refused to support him. He ran off to Boston to pursue his first literary ambition, poetry, publishing Tamerlane and other Poems (1827). Then, under the alias Edgar A. Perry, he joined the U.S. Army. Honorably discharged and temporarily reconciled with his stepfather, Poe obtained an appointment to West Point only to be dismissed for disobedience. By the early 1830s Poe was estranged once more from John Allan, falling into the hand-to-mouth existence that would dog him until his mysterious death in Baltimore in 1849. But he was also making his way into the rough-and-tumble world of magazines-publishing tales and even winning a prize of $50.00 from The Baltimore Saturday Visitor for best short story for “M.S. Found in a Bottle” (1833). It was in the magazine world that Poe would eventually find his literary and critical voice.

Working for magazines (mostly monthlies), Poe quickly achieved notoriety as an energetic, incisive, and caustic editor and critic. (He was called “the tomahawk man” for the way he could take a writer’s head off.) Writers in the 1830s and 40s were poorly paid and American magazines thrived on a culture of piracy (especially of well-known continental authors) and reprints (often uncredited). Imitation and plagiarism were common. Poe frequently contrived to sell magazines by courting controversy. He attacked the characters of many well-known figures by examining their handwriting in a piece called “Autography” (1836). He accused Henry Wadsworth Longfellow of plagiarism and planned a book to be entitled Chapters on American Cribbage which would expose America’s literary thieves. This was ironic because, as source scholarship has shown, Poe was an adept plagiarist himself. For one of the last pieces he wrote, “A Reviewer Reviewed” (written in 1849, but unpublished), Poe adopted the pseudonym of Walter G. Bowen in order to expose his own plagiarism, intriguingly foreshadowed by Dupin’s double-theft of a piece of writing in “The Purloined Letter.” At the height of his fame, after the success of “The Raven” in 1845, he scandalized New York with blunt critical sketches of the local literati. Despite his celebrity, however, Poe never achieved financial success. One could publish the most famous poem in America, have it reprinted in every paper in every city, and scarcely earn a dime off of it. Similarly, for the Dupin stories Poe received small flat fees and no residuals. He dreamed of founding his own magazine to be entitled Stylus or Penn Magazine, but could never quite find the backers. In 1845 he wrote a satirical lament about the plight of “poor devil authors” in an article entitled “Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House.”

Poe had many admirers, but through literary and personal attacks, acquired a sizable number of enemies as well. His alcoholism and periodically perverse behavior was a source of public commentary throughout his life. While it is certainly true that Poe was never the fiend that his literary executor, Rufus Griswold, made him out to be in a notorious obituary, his erratic behavior did lead to quarrels, scandals, and libel suits. The great transitions of Poe’s editorial career were either marked or precipitated by drinking episodes. His relationship with the city of Richmond and The Southern Literary Messenger ended primarily because of a debacle over drink, as did his term in Philadelphia at Burtons and Graham’s, and in New York at The Broadway Journal. From Richmond to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to New York, New York to Fordham, and in his last years-after the death of his consumptive wife in 1846-shuttling between Lowell, Providence, Richmond, and Baltimore, Poe was periodically propelled by drinking problems from one urban setting to another, from one literary scene, one domestic arrangement and, after the death of his wife, from one old flame to the next.

The social, economic, and technological transformations of the United States during Poe’s era of the 1830s and 40s were quite pronounced. Eastern cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were beginning to develop metropolitan qualities (e.g. infrastructures and police forces). Rail transportation, telegraph communications, and photography all promised to usher in a new era of technological advancement. The period was marked by Jacksonian democracy, questions of slavery, abolition and expansion, the forced relocation of Native Americans, financial booms and panics, and a veritable explosion of print media. Poe’s development as an author in the turbulent magazine culture of the 1830s and 40s was tied to the rise of other popular literary forms such as the penny press. Magazines and newspapers, addressing themselves to large urban and even national audiences, attempted to keep pace with these developments.

While Poe is often represented as a kind of timeless, ahistorical figure penning gothic horrors such as “Ligeia” (1838) and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), he was just as often concerning himself with the latest developments of his own era. Through his dark and romantic fictional lens, Poe continually trained his sights on subjects of what were then modern phenomena. He was one of the first authors to write about the daguerreotype and its implications for the representation of reality. He wrote with enthusiasm about the potential of an anastatic printing process to connect authors and readers more directly. His tales of murderous madness, such as “The Black Cat” (1843), addressed themselves to perversity and alcoholism, exploring psychological phenomena in new ways. “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845) offered a grotesque vision of the popular and controversial subject of mesmerism (as hypnosis was called at the time). In his pseudo-factual narratives such as the sea adventure The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838)-his only novel-and “The Balloon-Hoax” (1844), Poe sought to exploit the public’s appetite and gullibility for the latest discoveries and inventions by passing off these works as true stories. In “Diddling Considered as one of the Exact Sciences” (1843), his exposé of business fraud, and in other satires, he described the pervasive deception in American society.

But whether engaged in perpetrating or exposing hoaxes, Poe always concerned himself with the ways literature was becoming a powerful molder and potential manipulator of mass culture in antebellum America.

As Neil Harris has shown, Poe’s hoaxes and ratiocinative fictions were, like the tricks of P.T. Barnum’s American museum, part of a profoundly modern public interest in the line between truth and fiction. There was, Harris writes in Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (1975), “a profusion at this time of large amounts of information, sometimes in statistical tables, sometimes in long lists of data. In large enough quantities, information gave the illusion of problem-solving by presenting previously unknown facts.” Poe displayed his budding interest in the use of ratiocinative processes to uncover the truth in an article he wrote early in his career entitled “Maelzel’s Chess Player” (1836). It dealt with a travelling exhibit featuring a chess-playing automaton. Many suspected it actually contained a man inside a hidden compartment. Poe determined, by its erratic movements, that it could not be a pure machine. By the early 1840s, Poe had become interested in another form of ratiocination-the science of cryptography and decoding. He ran contests in Philadelphia magazines challenging readers to send encrypted messages for him to solve. As with the Dupin stories, Poe exploited the public’s interest in puzzle-solving in order to reach a mass audience. Eventually he was inundated with cryptography and had to end his contest, but this work deepened his sensitivity to ratiocinative processes. “The ratiocination actually passing through the mind in the solution of even a simple cryptograph,” he observed, “if detailed step by step, would fill a large volume.”

Poe would later use the cryptograph as a motif in “The Gold-Bug” (1843), but it was through the Dupin stories that Poe found a narrative structure in which one might detail the steps of a ratiocinative process through to a solution. Poe’s ratiocinative writings, with their treatise-like openings and air of method, allowed readers to enter into a fictional world of urban mystery and crime and, through analysis, impose order and truth upon it. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” exploited this technique by making the core of Dupin’s analysis reliant upon careful readings of accounts of the crime in the Parisian newspapers. In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Poe used the parallel universe of Dupin’s fictional Paris to propose a solution to the real mystery of Mary Cecilia Rogers, whose corpse was discovered in the Hudson River in the summer of 1841. Poe followed the details of the investigation in the Philadelphia newspapers and, in an attempt to keep pace with developments in the ongoing case, even went to the New York area himself to investigate.

While “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” does not come to a firm conclusion, and scholarship has shown that Poe ignored evidence that Mary Rogers likely died as a result of a botched abortion, nonetheless Poe’s engagement with the newspaper as the medium through which urban reality is perceived was crucial to the success of the story. Readers responded to it. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign biography states that he read and re-read Poe’s Dupin stories with relish every year to keep his mind sharp.

Perhaps Poe’s sense of the irrational was too strong for him to persist for very long in unraveling puzzles of his own construction, but he left a lasting legacy with his Dupin stories. It may be that Poe’s greatest hidden contribution to the detective story was his technique of rendering the mysteries of the great city legible through his analysis of urban newspapers and magazines, the latter of which gave birth to Dupin. The Oxford editions of the Sherlock Holmes stories reveal the extent to which Conan Doyle raided the magazine Tit-Bits for the germs of stories. It may be no accident that Sherlock Holmes also flourished in an urban magazine-The Strand.




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