EDGAR ALLAN POE AND THE ORIGINS OF THE MODERN DETECTIVE by Jack - Newsletter

Wednesday Jul 27 2011
by Whodunit

Despite the advocacy of countless rivals, the American writer Edgar Allan Poe remains relatively secure in his place as the originator of the modern detective genre (as opposed to crime fiction) as we know it. I emphasize originator rather than “father”, because it is difficult to trace a direct line of descent from Poe to Sherlock Holmes or any other writer. Poe’s title rests on only three (possibly four) stories, one of them (“the Purloined Letter”) fairly short, the others more like novellas : “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, and “The Gold-Bug” all written during the 1840s. The exciting and innovative potentiality of these stories were not picked up by another writer until much later in the century. Poe had no immediate followers in either the United States or Great Britain.

Except for “The Gold-Bug”, which as we shall see shares much in common with the other stories, Poe’s detective writing features Monsieur C. August Dupin and is set in contemporary Paris. Poe admits to a considerable debt to the earlier real-life French detective Eugène-François Vidocq, and he was doubtless inspired by other sources as well. But Dupin is not a Vidocq. He is not a product of the underworld. He is an intellectual who is socially extremely well-connected. He smokes a pipe while thinking about a problem. He is personally acquainted with the Minister in “The Purloined Letter,” and he acts in that case on behalf of the female royal personage whose letter has been stolen. That these stories involve a French detective, are set in Paris, and are crafted by an American writer all remind us that the British had no monopoly on the detection genre in its formative days. At the same time, Poe would not have been so important if he had not been so influential upon the early writing of Arthur Conan Doyle. As many critics and historians have emphasized, there was no guarantee that Poe would lead to Doyle and the two of them together would manufacture a genre. But that is indeed what happened.

From the very beginning, Conan Doyle made clear that he was not only familiar with Poe’s work, but had thought carefully about it. In A Study in Scarlet, for example, Holmes tells Watson that “Dupin was a very inferior fellow.  That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt, but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.” The debt to Poe extended throughout Doyle’s work in a variety of ways.   Like Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Holmes in A Study in Scarlet advertises in the local newspapers. Holmes in several stories refers to detecting from an armchair, something that Poe had described Dupin as doing in “The Mystery of Marie Roget”. 

What Poe had managed to do was to introduce many of the conventions of the traditional detective story upon which Doyle would build, usually improving them in the process. Poe’s tales are all narrated in the first person by an anonymous narrator who is a personal intimate of the detective; Doyle personifies this narrator as Dr. Watson. Poe’s sleuths (Dupin and in “The Gold Bug” William LeGrand) are both intellectuals, masters of ratiocination. Poe has been criticized for introducing too much theory about the nature of rational thinking into several of the stories, but these theories are important to the functioning of his intellectualized detectives, for they provide an epistemology which goes beyond mere empiricism. Poe is no enemy of intuition; instead he provided it with a framework. The framework is the accumulation of evidence that can be arranged to reconstruct a sequence of events.

Poe makes quite clear that his “reason” is not that of the mathematician (or the logician or the chess-player) but that of the mathematician linked with that of the artist, with its wide-ranging scope and intuitive leaps outside the prescribed channels. The secret of the success of the Minister in “The Purloined Letter” is that he is both mathematician and poet.  Referring to chess, Poe wrote, “…it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences. So, perhaps, do his companions; and the difference in the extent of the information obtained, lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation. The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe,”. Poe (or his narrator in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) concludes: “The analytical power should not be confounded with simple ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis.”  In that same story Poe offers an extended example of intuitive mind-reading, which anticipates similar stunts Holmes would play upon the hapless Watson in order to demonstrate his superior intellectual prowess. All three Dupin stories use versions of the mathematical metaphor; in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” the narrator refers to the “Calculus of Probabilities”, which provides “the anomaly of the most rigidly exact in science applied to the shadow and spirituality of the most intangible in speculation.”  Dupin is not totally critical of the police.  Their problem is not that they are stupid or of inferior social origins, but that they are captives of an unimaginative empiricism based on their normal experience of criminal activity and behaviour. 

Poe not only creates an intellectual amateur detective -- he has a small private income -- whose cases are narrated by an admiring associate, but he obviously produced these two to appear as continuing series characters.  That they have only three cases does not affect the author’s general understanding of the many advantages of ongoing characters. He gives Dupin an address, “au troisième, no. 33 Rue Dunôt, Faubourg St. Germain” and a pipe to puff on as he considers the problem. He also gives Dupin a high social status, personally acquainted with a Minister of State and acting on behalf of a royal personage in “The Purloined Letter.” In two of the three stories Dupin is discreetly consulted by the police, who are baffled by the case involved. In all three stories Dupin solves mysteries that the police could not. Had Poe gone on to write more Dupin stories, we doubtless would have learned more of his idiosyncracies and his methods. As it is, as Martin Kayman points out, it was hard to base a detective series on “a socially unconcerned recluse with no real interest in crime as such and no professional or institutional relationship with the police.”

It is true that “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is basically a monster story, but what is innovative is Poe’s use of physical evidence -- the handprints on the victim’s throat, the bit of hair, the witnesses’ accounts of the voice (each one thinks it speaks a language he or she does not know) to arrive at the conclusion that the killer is an orangutan. He further uses bits of evidence (Poe does not employ the word “clue”) to guess (deduce) the nature of the killer’s master. From a small piece of knotted hair-ribbon -- “this knot is one which few besides sailors can tie, and it is peculiar to the Maltese” -- Dupin deduces a sailor belonging to a Maltese vessel and advertises for him in the newspaper. Poe did everything but have Dupin make reference to his “little monograph on sailors’ knots”!  In “The Gold Bug,” Poe offers the quintessential cryptography story. There may be better crytographers than Poe, but he manages to explain how his detective solves the cipher in a way eminently comprehensible to the reader. It is a simple letter substitution code, which is amenable to letter frequency calculations and inspired guesswork. Holmes would break several not dissimilar codes in the course of his career.   

It is probably fair to point out that Edgar Allan Poe was not himself entirely clear about the potentials for what he had created. If he had figured it out he would have written many more stories and been far less of an impoverished writer. Not Poe but Conan Doyle was able to turn the detective to full advantage.



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