Inventing the Detective

Edgar Allan Poe is known for many things. His poem, The Raven, is up there as one of his most famous works, possibly because it was featured in the very first Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons (brilliantly, in my opinion). Amongst several ‘firsts’ he is considered the first full-time profession writer earning a living through writing alone (it’s worth noting this resulted in a financial difficulty throughout his life). What adds to his contribution to Great Moments in Literature is that he also created what is considered the very first detective story. The story in question was called The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe’s role in the creation of the detective story is reflected in the Edgar Awards, given annually by the Mystery Writers of America.

The word detective did not exist at the time Poe wrote the story. Some sources even credit Poe with creating the word ‘Detective’. He is also credited with coining the term ‘short story’. The Murders in the Rue Morgue is also considered the first locked room mystery in detective fiction (but then as the first detective story anything it does is a first). In my forthcoming sequel to Colours of Death, I have my own take on a locked room mystery, the constraints of which (setting, time-frame, characters locked in place) I found fun to work within.

Poe’s prototype detective is named Dupin and he appears in a mere three short stories. This seems somewhat disproportionate to the influence the character had on the public and other authors. Like many of the literary detectives who followed or were inspired by him, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, Dupin is not a professional detective and is motivated by the intrinsic nature of the case. He even refuses a financial reward just like Holmes and Poirot do on occasion.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue established many tropes that would become common elements in mystery fiction: the eccentric but brilliant detective, a not-always competent police force and the story being told in the first-person by a character who is a friend of the detective. At the end of the story, the detective announces his solution and then explains the reasoning leading up to it. This chain of thought process is something I enjoy about Sherlock Holmes stories, but it was only something I realised Holmes was imitating in researching this article despite having read the Dupin stories a few years ago and re-reading the entire Sherlock canon last year.

The characters of Holmes and Poirot both acknowledge their respective author’s debt to Poe and Dupin in their stories. In the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlett when compared to Dupin he responds, “No doubt you think you are complimenting me … 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 appears to imagine.” Poirot, in opening chapter of The Third Girl, has just completed writing his own an analysis of fictional detectives, and he gloats that in it “he had dared to speak scathingly of Edgar Allen Poe.” Even though both these views are critical of Poe/Dupin, I think of this as more a meta-fictional method of drawing attention to the differences between Dupin and the characters of Holmes and Poirot, rather than genuine disregard by Doyle and Christie. i.e. More an acknowledgement of the literary shoulders their character stands upon, than disrespect.

I like the Dupin stories but the story of Poe’s which captured my attention was The Gold-Bug, which contains many elements of detective fiction. It probably deserve a Great Moment all of it’s own, though I’ll discuss it further when I write about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a later post. The mystery in The Gold Bug is nothing compared to Poe’s final days though…

The real circumstances of Poe’s death could easily have formed the basis of an investigation by his fictional detective. In 1849, Poe went missing for five days and was found “worse for the wear” and delirious in Baltimore. One thought was that he’d been drugged and made to go round to various polling booths to vote, illegally. In the modern world it sounds positively conspiracy theoretical, but apparently back then the process was common enough to have its own name: cooping. Poe was taken to the hospital where he died soon after at the age of 40. No autopsy was performed, and the cause of death was listed as a vague “congestion of the brain”. Experts and scholars have proposed everything from murder and rabies to dipsomania and carbon monoxide poisoning as the reason for his demise, but to this day the cause of Edgar Allan Poe’s death remains a mystery. Whilst tragic, I can’t help but ponder insensitively if there could be a more befitting legacy?

So, Poe’s creation of the detective genre inspired many authors to follow with their own fictional detectives, but one such author, who had world-wide fame, went a step further and eerily mirrored Poe’s disappearance and re-emergence in a dire state. More on that next time.

This post is part of my Great Moments in Literature series. So you never miss a new Great Moment, please subscribe to my mailchimp list or this website:

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