Poe Week: The Great Detective


By Stewart Sternberg

murders_rue_morgueAround Halloween, it’s easy to focus on the horror of Poe, but one shouldn’t lose sight of his contributions to another genre – the detective mystery. Unfortunately, few modern readers tackle Poe’s mysteries. Instead, they are given through school a handful of stories, usually consisting of “The Tell Tale Heart”, “The Masque of the Red Death”, and “The Pit and the Pendulum”. And they are made to analyze “The Raven”, a poem about the hopelessness of life and the inevitability of death – you know, something every teenager contemplates between rounds of Halo. In fairness, Poe’s prose is sometimes difficult for the modern reader to follow, especially the younger reader.

His work is a critical read, though, for the literature student seeking to understand the influences of different authors in forging elements of popular literature and culture. While H.P. Lovecraft may not be read directly by teens within a school system, his influence on the horror story is inescapable; the same can be said for Poe and modern detective fiction.

In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe penned the adventures of one Auguste C. Dupin and in doing so, paved the way for what would become a staple of genre, the detective story.

Appearing first in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Dupin was a not a professional detective, but rather something of a dilettante. He approached his intellectual puzzles with what Poe would refer to as “ratiocination”, or the process of exact thinking, a method which would later be refined by Doyle as “deductive reasoning”.

The detective would stretch his vast intellect in two other tales, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”. At the time, the mysteries were the author’s most popular works, a fact which frustrated Poe. He considered the tales a bit of pandering to public taste and, in one letter, justified their popularity by dismissing them as ‘novel’. In another letter, he bemoaned the lack of attention his more ‘literary’ work received compared to the Dupin tales. It’s interesting how this divide between ‘serious’ literature and genre plays out today, but that’s for another, more controversial, essay about class and capitalism.

Regardless of Poe’s dismissal of the stories, they give us the foundation for the most popular conventions of today’s detective fiction. In these three stories, we have elements which have almost become archetypal: the master intellect, the appreciative sidekick or partner, and the piecing together of obvious clues in a careful and logical manner to arrive at an ingenious conclusion which leaves the reader amazed and impressed by the detective’s display of intellectual gymnastics. And the police? They are usually relegated to the sidelines, where they are left looking on with contempt at having been upstaged by a meddling amateur. Even if the detective is a police officer, he is usually an outsider or a rogue working against the establishment.

Without Dupin, would there have been a Sherlock?

Holmes would surely scoff at the suggestion that he owed anything to this predecessor. In “A Study In Scarlet”, Doyle’s first Holmes’ story, the master rankles when Watson compares him to Poe’s creation:

“‘No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,’ he observed. ‘Now, in my opinion, 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.'”

One suspects this was a tongue-in-cheek statement by the author. Especially since Doyle would comment later regarding Poe’s work: “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Although “The Murders in The Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” today may go unread by many, authors from Doyle to Christie, from Connolly to Parker, all give a nod of acknowledgement to Poe. Indeed, the award for the year’s best effort in mystery fiction, awarded by the Mystery Writers of America is named ‘The Edgar’.

As well it should be.

Bio: Stewart Sternberg has been published through Mythos Press, Chaosium, and Eldersigns Press. His new novel, The Ravening, a work of survival horror, is being released through Elder Signs Press and is available for pre-order now. You can follow him at http://house-of-sternberg.blogspot.com or on Twitter at: twitter.com/ssternberg.

There wouldn't be a Sherlock Holmes without a Dupin. This means we would have never seen Robert Downey Jr. sporting his best Victoriana.