It All Began With Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is generally thought of as the father of the mystery novel. Ironically enough, he never wrote a single detective novel and only composed a handful of mystery short stories. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1845) feature the detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, while “Gold Bug” (1843) and “Thou Art the Man” (1844) do not include a detective but do establish some of the essential features of the mystery story.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” begins with a newspaper account of the grisly murders of a mother and daughter. Plot devices such as the locked-room mystery and conflicting eye-witness testimony originate in this tale. In fact, Dorothy L. Sayers claims that the story constitutes “an almost complete manual of detective theory and practice” (1928, 81).

“The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt” is the story of the mysterious disappearance and death of a shop girl. “The innovation here,” Symons points out, “is that the story is told through newspaper cuttings.” Dupin solves the crime through armchair detection, “simply by analysis of and deduction from the material with which he is presented” (1992, 31).

“The Purloined Letter” depicts a royal court intrigue, and features an incriminating letter. As in many later detective stories, the least-likely solution is the correct one. Dupin’s unexpected and surprising announcement that he has solved the mystery is the first of many such pronouncements by fictional detectives.

The non-Dupin tales also introduce motifs used in the mystery story today. “Gold Bug” is a treasure-hunt tale featuring a cryptogram, while “Thou Art the Man” uses ballistic evidence, the planting of false clues, the least-likely character as murderer, and the extraction of a confession though sudden psychological shock (Symons 1992, 33; Binyon 1989, 5).

Although these later stories have shaped the development of the mystery genre, it is the Dupin tales that have been particularly influential. Dupin, the eccentric genius with superior reasoning ability, and his assistant, the nameless character who admires Dupin but is not his equal intellectually, constitute a detective team that numerous novelists have used as a template (Binyon 1989, 5). Dupin’s “illustrious” family connections (143), bohemian habits (144, 208), and desire to solve crimes for “amusement” and “mental excitement” (153, 144) are traits found in later fictional detectives. Especially noteworthy is Dupin’s reliance on logic, reason, and systematic procedures to solve cases. “Let us proceed methodically,” he tells his assistant (191).

Ross Macdonald claimed that Poe’s “anguished insight into the human mind . . . had to be controlled by some rational pattern, and the detective story, ‘the tale of ratiocination,’ provided such a pattern” (1973, 11). Poe was able to counteract “the nightmare forces of mind” with the reasoning power of the detective. Indeed his stories “condense the idea of Gothic thrill and rational inquiry,” features prominent in later detective fiction (Knight 2004, 28).

The inclusion of newspaper evidence, the importance of seemingly irrelevant facts, the insistence on the apparent insolvability of the crime, and the depiction of the police as inadequate (“many a school-boy is a better reasoner” 215) are all familiar characteristics of the detective novel. “It is doubtful,” claims Sayers, “whether there are more than half a dozen deceptions in the mystery-monger’s bag of tricks, and . . . Poe has got most of them, at any rate in embryo” (1928, 80).

Binyon, T. J. The Detective in Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Macdonald, Ross. “The Writer as Detective Hero.” In Crime Writing. Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1973, 9-24.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.

Sayers, Dorothy L. “The Omnibus of Crime (1928-29)” In The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Howard Haycraft, 71-109. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1992. Originally published as Introduction to Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror. London: Gollancz, 1928.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.