Edgar Allan Poe is credited with writing the first detective story, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” With this story and several others, he set down the standards for all future writers of detective fiction. The discussion that follows is meant to give a broad overview of the genre and subgenre of detective fiction. This is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion, but rather is presented as a brief introduction to the detective story. Much of the information is credited to Hillary Waugh from his book “Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing.”
Most detective stories, but not all, have as the main character an eccentric detective. He is the hero of the story. Special importance is placed on the thoughts, speech, and gestures of the detective. He is depicted as a “thinking machine,” somehow not quite a complete human being. He combines logic, scientific investigation, and creativity in his crime solving. The detective is mostly indifferent to the feelings of discomfort and misery in his fellows. Through some quirk of character, he has lost the ability to feel. For this reason, the detective prefers privacy, which is a sign of his separateness from the rest of the human race. In most cases he works by himself and for himself, even though he may have an associate. This is true of Poe’s Dupin, Doyle’s Holmes, and Christie’s Poirot, for example.
Many detective stories have an admiring and slightly stupid foil who chronicles the accomplishments of the detective. This companion is tolerated and is introduced as a contrast to the brilliance of the main character. Generally, these characters offer little stimulation to the detective, even though they may be on intimate terms.
Well-intentioned, blundering officials are standards in the genre. These characters utilize methodical reason which plods along and usually blinds them with detail. There is no possibility that any member of this group of officials can contribute to the solution of the mystery. Most are portrayed as stupid or, at their worst, incompetent men who are baffled or bewildered by the crime. Others are shown to be mistakenly confident and frequently overlook the clues causing them to arrest the wrong person. These characters often mock and laugh at the detective, labeling his oracular conclusions as ridiculous. They are contemptuous of his seemingly trivial and undignified actions in investigating the crime.
The staged ruse, which forces the criminal to reveal himself, is not a requirement for detective fiction, but it does present an interesting test for the reader when it is used by a writer: do we know why the detective is setting the kind of trap he is setting?
Finally, most detective fiction concludes with an explanation. This is the part of the story where all unsolved problems are answered. The more complicated the plot, the longer it takes for the detective to tie up the loose ends. Usually this exposition is done in the presence of the assembled “community” of characters in the story.
A subgenre of detective fiction is the “locked room.” Although this is not a requirement of the detective story, many writers use it. There is some sort of enigma or apparent impossibility involved in the solution to the crime. It allows the detective to propose the most ingenious conclusions about not only the commission of the crime, but also the exit of the criminal from the room.
Many writers begin their stories with the impact of the crime, then work backwards to reconstruct the incomplete fragments of what is known into a more intelligible whole. The detective generally is never surprised and appears to consolidate trifling clues into a logical solution almost from the beginning. He rarely chats casually, but rather keeps his speech under control letting very little pertinent information out. Even his facial expression remains inscrutable.
Another subgenre is coming to the solution by putting oneself in the criminal’s position. This technique allows the detective to use his intuitive powers. He identifies his intellect with the criminal’s, thus discovering what that person must think or do. The detective’s powers are unlimited because of his intense ability to concentrate. Since all minds are lesser than his, he can understand the motivations of any man. These intuitive detectives include Christie’s Miss Marple and Chesterton’s Father Brown.
Waugh continues his discussion by acknowledging that other conventions have come to be part of this genre. In addition to the lone detective who solves the crime openly and methodically, the detective story can involve a single criminal who is usually a very private, yet relatively prominent individual. The criminal should be indiscernible as the perpetrator of a crime until the end of the story; in the meantime, he should be depicted as an ordinary person. He generally is a cool, calculating amateur, though a man or woman with an intellect that is almost the match of the detective.
The crime of choice in detective fiction is murder. The victim must involve all the characters in suspicion, and, on some level, all characters must feel guilty whether they were involved in the crime or not, although frequently there are follow-up murders. Once in a while, each murder is committed by someone different. The corpse is briefly revealed, but is almost completely ignored and forgotten in the excitement of the ensuing investigation.
One final essential element to the detective story is the element of “fair play”. This means that the reader must have all of the clues the detective has. The reader may be unable to put them together for the reconstruction of the crime and may be caught unaware, but never should he be ignorant.
EDGAR ALLAN POE
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) invented the modern detective story. Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809. Orphaned at age three, he was raised by John Allan, a wealthy merchant of Richmond, Virginia. Although they did not get along, Poe took Allan as his middle name.
When Poe entered college at age seventeen, Allen only gave him a small allowance. Poe gambled and ran into great debt. He began to drink. Allan withdrew Poe from school, and Poe soon left home. Poe went to Boston in 1827, where he persuaded a printer to issue a pamphlet of his poems called “Tamerlane and Other Poems.” Credit was given simply to “A Bostonian.”
Poe spent a short time at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., but could not take the discipline. His first success as a writer came in 1833, when he entered a short-story contest and won a prize of 50 dollars for the story “MS. Found in a Bottle.”
In 1835, he became the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. At that time, he married his cousin Virginia Clemm, who was only 13. From 1837 to 1842, he worked as a free lance writer and editor in New York City and Philadelphia but earned very little. He tried to start his own magazine but failed, so he turned to freelance writing again. Even his best stories, such as, “Fall of the House of Usher” (1839); “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1843), considered the first detective story; and “The Gold Bug” (1843); sold for no more than 100 dollars each.
In 1844, Poe moved to New York City where he was well known in literary circles. He published “The Raven and Other Poems” in 1845. His wife died on January 30, 1847, of tuberculosis, and he became increasingly depressed.
In 1849, he disappeared in Baltimore and was found five days later drugged, intoxicated, and near death. He never regained consciousness and died four days later on October 7, 1849. The French poet, Charles Baudelaire, translated Poe’s works in the 1850’s and made Poe the first American author to be widely read outside the United States.
C. AUGUSTE DUPIN, DETECTIVE
C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective, was modeled after a real detective, Eugene Vidocq of the Surete. (This accounts for the Paris setting of the story.) Dupin is the prototype of Sherlock Holmes. Both use the same methodology and, ultimately, explain all of the ramifications of their investigations to the reader. Dupin’s motivation for solving the crime is the sheer love of testing his powers of reasoning. (Poe called this ability to reason logically “ratiocination.”)
Dupin was contemptuous of the Parisian police and their methods. He solved crimes by following paradoxical clues; circumstances that seemed mysterious often gave him the precise clue which led to the solution. Dupin represents intuition tempered with scientific knowledge. He describes himself as possessing elements of both the poet and the scientist. His analysis of the crime is so profound that it is intuitive.
Poe describes Dupin as a poor man of “illustrious parentage.” He is an avid reader and a heavy smoker. He is an eccentric and a romantic. Dupin remains in his room for a month at a time seeing no one. He lives in a small apartment at No. 33 Rue Dunot, Faubourg-St. Germain, with an anonymous friend who narrates the story. Dupin prefers to turn night into day, sleeping by day, sitting behind closed shutters at night reading and working by candlelight. He occasionally comes out, but only at night.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”
The story begins with the introduction of Poe’s detective, M. Auguste Dupin, and his companion. Two gruesome murders have been committed. The mother has had a portion of her scalp ripped off and her head nearly severed from her neck; the daughter has been choked to death and her body stuffed up the chimney. Dupin learns of these murders through a newspaper report which tells of the murderer’s voice being heard during the commission of the crime, but not in a language those who heard it understood. Those who report hearing the voice are of different nationalities. It is from this, among other things, that Dupin deduces that the murderer’s sounds were not a language at all, and the killer was not human.
At the scene of the crime, Dupin finds that the doors have been locked from the inside, and the windows nailed shut. There is no way for the murderer to have escaped, yet he is gone. Dupin solves the problem.
In the conclusion, Dupin places an ad in the paper which lures a sailor to his address. This gentleman owned an orangutan which had committed the murders while he watched, unable to get to or control the animal. After solving the case, Dupin explains the aspects of the case which hadn’t been known before.