I read a couple of conflicting reviews of the new film "The Raven" this morning in which John Cusack plays Edgar Allen Poe. The film's excuse to depict gruesome murder and high tension detective suspense is to combine such Poe horror tales as "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Premature Burial," etc. with Poe's detective technique of ratiocination. According to the reviews and the trailer on YouTube, Poe is asked to help solve crimes (ala his amateur detective Dupin) in which a killer is imitating murders from his own stories. Not a bad concept, but I will probably wait until it comes out on DVD to watch it. But always alert for a tie-in to my own modest imaginative/ratiocinative efforts, I thought I would post an entry on Poe's detective stories for your reading pleasure, in hopes that you will return to the source and reread Poe.
Although Edgar Allan Poe's career was relatively short, he was the most important writer in the mid-19th century to transform the legendary tale form into a sophisticated psychological fiction now known as the short story. Experimenting with many different fictional forms such as the gothic tale, science fiction, occult fantasies, and satire, Poe gained great recognition in the early 1840's for his creation of a genre that has grown in popularity ever since--the so-called tale of ratiocination, or detective story, which features an amateur sleuth who by his superior deductive abilities outsmarts criminals and outclasses the police.
Such stories as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget" created a small sensation in America when they were first published. Following fast upon these works was the "The Gold-Bug" (1843) which, although it did not feature Dupin, focused on analytical detection and also was so popular that it was immediately reprinted three times. "The Purloined Letter," the third and final story in the Dupin series, has been the subject of a great deal of critical analysis since its publication as a model of ironic and tightly-structured plot.
Poe is credited as the creator of the detective story and the character type known as the amateur sleuth. However, Auguste Dupin and his ratiocinative ability did not spring from nowhere. Probably the two most obvious sources are Voltaire's ”Zadig” (1748) and Eugene Francois Vidocq's ”Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police” (1828-29). Poe mentions Zadig in "Hop-Frog" (1849) and thus probably knew the story of Zadig's being able to deduce the description of the King's horse and the Queen's dog by examining tracks left on the ground and hair left on bushes. He also mentions Vidocq, the first real-life detective, in "The Murders of the Rue Morgue" as a "good guesser," but one who could not see clearly because he held the object of investigation too close.
However, Poe's creation of the ratiocinative story also derives from broader and more basic interests and sources. First there was his interest in the aesthetic theory of Samuel Taylor Coleridge as derived from 19th-century German Romanticism. In several of Poe's most famous critical essays, such as his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ”Twice-Told Tales• and his theoretical articles, "Philosophy of Composition" (1846) and "The Poetic Principle" (1848), Poe develops his own version of the theory of the art work as a form in which every single detail contributes to the overall effect. This organic aesthetic theory obviously contributes much to Poe's creation of the detective genre in which every detail, even the most seemingly minor, may be a clue to the solution of the story's central mystery.
Secondly, there was Poe's knowledge of the gothic genre, which, based on the concept of hidden sin and filled with mysterious and unexplained events, had, like the detective story, to move inexorably toward a denouement that would explain or lay bare all the previous puzzles. The first Gothic story, Horace Walpole's ”The Castle of Otranto” (1764), with its secret guilt and cryptic clues, was thus an early source of the detective story.
Thirdly, there was Poe's fascination with cryptograms, riddles, codes, and other conundrums and puzzles. In an article in a weekly magazine in 1839, he offered to solve any and all cryptograms submitted; in a follow-up article in 1841 he said that he had indeed solved most of them. Although Poe demonstrated his skill as a solver of puzzles in many magazine articles, the most famous fictional depiction of his skill as a cryptographer is his story "The Gold Bug" (1843).
William Legrand, the central character in "The Gold Bug," shares some characteristics with Poe's famous amateur sleuth, Auguste Dupin: he is of an illustrious family, but because of financial misfortunes he has been reduced to near poverty; although he is of French ancestry from New Orleans, he lives alone on an island near Charleston, South Carolina; moreover, like Dupin, he alternates between gloomy melancholy and excited enthusiasm, which leads the narrator (also like the narrator in the Dupin stories) to suspect that he is the victim of a species of madness.
The basic premise of the story is that Legrand is figuratively bitten by the gold bug after discovering a piece of parchment on which he finds a cryptogram with directions to the buried treasure of the pirate Captain Kidd. As with the more influential Dupin stories, "The Gold Bug" focuses less on action than on the explanation of the steps toward the solution of its mystery. In order to solve the puzzle of the cryptogram, Legrand demonstrates the essential qualities of the amateur detective: close attention to minute detail, extensive information about language and mathematics, far©reaching knowledge about his opponent (in this case the pirate Captain Kidd), and most importantly a perceptive intuition as well as a methodical reasoning ability.
However, it is in the Auguste Dupin stories that Poe develops most of the conventions of the detective story which have been used by other writers ever since. The first of the three, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," is the most popular because it combines horrifying inexplicable events with astonishing feats of deductive reasoning. The narrator, the forerunner of Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories, meets Dupin in this story and very early recognizes that he has a double personality, a Bi-Part Soul, for he is both wildly imaginative and coldly analytical.
The reader's first encounter with Dupin's deductive ability takes place even before the murders occur when he seems to read his companion's mind by responding to something that the narrator had only been thinking. When Dupin explains the elaborate method whereby he followed the narrator's thought processes by noticing small details and associating them, we have the beginning of a long history of fictional detectives taking great pleasure in recounting the means by which they solved a hidden mystery.
Dupin's knowledge of the brutal murder of a mother and daughter on the Rue Morgue is by the same means that any ordinary citizen might know of a murder--the newspapers. As is to become usual in the amateur sleuth genre, Dupin scorns the methods of the professional investigators as being no method at all. He argues that the police find the mystery insoluble for the very reason that it should be regarded as easy to solve, that is, its bizarre nature; thus the facility with which he solves the case is in direct proportion to its apparent insolubility by the police.
The heart of the story, as it is to become the heart of practically every detective story since, centers not on the action of the crime but rather on Dupin's extended explanation of how he solved it. The points about the murder which stump the police are precisely those which enable Dupin to master the case: the contradiction of several neighbors who describe hearing a voice in several different foreign languages and the fact that there seems no possible means of entering or exiting the room where the murders took place. The first he accounts for by deducing that the criminal must have been an animal; the second he explains by following a mode of reasoning based on a process of elimination to determine that apparent impossibilities are in reality possible after all. When Dupin reveals that an escaped Ourang-Outang did the killing, the Paris Prefect of Police complains that Dupin should mind his own business. However, Dupin is content to have beaten the Prefect in his own realm; descendants of Dupin have been beating police inspectors ever since.
"The Mystery of Marie Roget," although it also focuses on Dupin's solving of a crime primarily from newspaper reports, is actually based on the murder of a young girl, Mary Cecilia Rogers, near New York city. Because the crime had not been solved when Poe wrote the story, he made use of the actual facts of the case of Mary Rogers to tell a story of the murder of a young Parisian girl, Marie Roget, as a means of demonstrating his superior deductive ability.
The story ostensibly begins two years after the events of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" when the Prefect of Police, having failed to solve the Marie Roget case himself, worries about his reputation and comes to Dupin to ask for his help. Dupin's method is the classic means of the armchair detective; he gathers all the copies of the newspapers which have accounts of the crime and sets about methodically examining each one. He declares the case more intricate than that of the Rue Morgue because, ironically, it seems so simple.
One of the characteristics of the story that makes it less popular than the other two Dupin tales is the extensive analysis of the newspaper articles Dupin engages in--an analysis which makes the story read more like an article critical of newspaper techniques than a narrative story. In fact, that which makes Poe able to propose a solution to the crime is not so much his knowledge of crime as it is his knowledge of the conventions of newspaper writing. In a similar manner, it was his knowledge of the conventions of novel-writing that made it possible for him to deduce the correct conclusion of Dickens' novel Barnaby Rudge the previous year when he had read only one or two of the first installments.
Another aspect of "The Mystery of Marie Roget" which reflects Dupin's deductive genius and which has been used by detective writers since is his conviction that the usual error of the police is to pay so much attention to the immediate events that they ignore the peripheral, that is, the circumstantial, evidence. Both experience and true philosophy, says Dupin, show that truth arises more often from the seemingly irrelevant than from the so-called strictly relevant. By this means, Dupin eliminates the various hypotheses for the crime proposed by the newspapers and proposes his own hypothesis which is confirmed by the confession of the murderer.
Although "The Mystery of Marie Roget" contains some of the primary conventions that find their way into subsequent detective stories, it is the least popular of the Dupin narratives not only because it contains so much reasoning and exposition that very little narrative emerges, but because it is so long and convoluted that the reader tires of following the many details of Dupin's analyses of the newspaper articles. Of the many experts of detective fiction who have commented on Poe's contribution to the genre, only Dorothy Sayers has praised the "Marie Roget" work, calling it a story especially for connoisseurs, a serious intellectual exercise rather than a sensational thriller like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue.
However, professional literary critics, if not professional detective writers, have singled out "The Purloined Letter"—the most ironic, economical, and classically pure of the Dupin stories--as the most brilliant of Poe's ratiocinative works. This time the crime is much more subtle than murder, for it focuses on political intrigue and manipulation. Although the crime is quite simple--the theft of a letter from an exalted and noble personage--its effects are quite complex. The story depends on several ironies: first of all, the identity of the criminal is known, for he stole the letter in plain sight of the noble lady; second, the letter is a threat to the lady from whom he stole it only as long as he does nothing with it; finally, the Paris Police cannot find the letter, even though they use the most sophisticated an exhaustive methods of searching for it, precisely because, as Dupin deduces, it is in plain sight.
Also distinguishing the story from the other two Dupin stories is Dupin's extended discussion of the important relationship between the seemingly disparate talents of the mathematician and the poet. The Minister who has stolen the letter is successful, says Dupin, because he indeed is both poet and mathematician. In turn, Dupin's method of discovering the location of the letter, a method which has been used by detectives ever since, is also to be poet and mathematician and thus to identify with the mind of the criminal. The method follows the same principle as that of a young boy Dupin knows of who is an expert of the game of "even and od,--a variation of the old game of holding something in your hand behind your back and asking someone to guess which hand holds the prize. The boy always wins, not because he is a good guesser, but because, as he says, he fashions the expression on his face to match the face of the one with his hands behind his back and then tries to see what thoughts come into his mind to correspond with that expression.
The various techniques of deduction developed by Poe in the Dupin stories are so familiar to readers of detective fiction that to read the Poe stories is to be reminded that very few essential conventions of the genre have been invented since Poe. Indeed, with the publication of the Dupin stories, Poe truly can be said to have singlehandedly brought the literary genre of the detective story into being.