By Edgar Allan Poe.
First appeared in Graham's Magazine, April 1841.
"The Purloined Letter."
By Edgar Allan Poe.
First appeared in The Gift for 1845, December 1844.
It's been only eleven years since Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance, and already we have a critic not only declaring that detective fiction needs an overhaul but also offering ideas on how to do it. He won't be the last:
I HAVE just finished reading a volume of French stories, avowedly of an impossible character, —contes incroyables. One or two of them are what we generally call detective stories. The author speaks of two well-known tales of Poe, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Purloined Letter," as if they had been models to him.
In the introduction to the former of these stories, Poe has a great deal to say about analytic power, skill in solving a mystery from following up indications: and such is indeed the art or science of the actual "detective."
But in reading the whole mass of detective stories, it is amusing to reflect that they exhibit none of this analytic, this unfolding art at all. Their art, such as it is, is purely synthetic or constructive. The author has the solution of his own mystery all in his mind; he knows perfectly well who is the murderer; he then proceeds carefully to cover up his own tracks, and, having got them into the requisite state of concealment, elaborately to withdraw his own veils.
Much skill is often shown in the selection of circumstances which are to lead to the desired solution; but art in solving the mystery there is none, for to the author it was no mystery from the beginning.
The real way to write a detective story would be this: Let one writer of fiction conceive a criminal situation, and surround the corpus delicti with as many events and circumstances, slight or prominent, as he sees fit.
In this work, as far as possible, he must keep his murder, his forgery, or his abduction a mystery to himself. Let another writer, not in cooperation with the first, work out a complete solution, accounting for every circumstance, and introducing no new ones at all inconsistent with the asserted facts.
The interest might be prolonged by calling on the original author to criticise the offered solution, with reference not to any theory in his own mind, but solely to the situation as he originally drew it. Of course he will have been bound originally by no restriction as to what this is to be, except that he must not create a purely physical impossibility; his personages must not be described as being in two places at once.
After author number one has written his critique, author number two will be invited to defend and develop his solution. If not, the fiction passes into the realm of unsolved mysteries, —common enough in real detective history.
A certain society at college once held a mock trial, — a classmate was tried for the murder of a tutor. The counsel for the prosecution were obliged to submit the incriminating circumstances, as devised by them, to the counsel for the prisoner, who were at liberty to present any testimony they liked in their case; six witnesses only being called on each side.
The prisoner's counsel met the prosecution at nearly every point; in fact, they confined themselves so rigidly to this task that they entirely forgot to make their evidence amusing, and the succession of laughs which greeted every step in the witty case of the prosecution almost wholly failed as we heard the sadly serious if close reply.
Yet at the last they left one circumstance unexplained, which, though slight, told heavily against the accused. But the detective, whether in fact or in fiction, must leave nothing unaccounted for which concerns his solution of the mystery.
It may be remarked that Poe, in "The Purloined Letter," makes C. Auguste Dupin (the prototype of Sherlock Holmes) see both the seal and the address of the letter at once, while it is stuffed in a cardboard rack several feet from where he is sitting, and when, as he himself says, to rise and take it in his hand would have been fatal. — "The Contributors' Club: Detective Stories," THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY (April 1898)
Category: Detective fiction