From The Nation, September 19, 1907.
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A LONG WAY AFTER POE
Poe is so generally recognized as the father of the detective story that it hardly needs a magazine article by Prof. Brander Matthews, "Poe and the Detective Story," in Scribner's, to recall his services to this branch of literary art. Poe, says Professor Matthews, "transported the detective story from the group of tales of adventure into the group of portrayals of character. By bestowing upon it a human interest he raised it in the literary scale." In doing this he marked the way for some of the most voluminous and popular authors of his own and the next century. A large and increasing number of writers have tried their hands at the kind of story that Poe invented, and some of them have succeeded. The statement that Sherlock Holmes is the most widely known figure created by a living writer is, we suppose, hardly open to question.
It is a remark of Sir Conan Doyle himself that "the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero." Those who follow Poe—at a long distance—make somewhat pathetic attempts to differentiate their heroes. These characters have been distinguished by bald heads, crazy thatches of hair, commanding figures, official positions, private retainers, offices down town, "lodgings" up town, but to very little purpose. Scratch any one of the tribe and you find a more or less successful imitation of Dupin. And beside each of them travels a counterpart of Poe's anonymous reporter, or Doyle's Dr. Watson. No one thinks in these days of charging a new writer with plagiarism, or even lack of originality, because he writes a series of stories about mysteries solved by a preternaturally clever deductive reasoner whose acts are reported by a preternaturally stupid friend and ally. These are features of a form that has now become conventional, like the fourteen lines of a sonnet, the pair of comic lovers in a rural drama, or the three volumes of the old-time novel. There are not nine and sixty ways of constructing detective stories; there is only one way. The rules of the game have been worked out and the devotees of the detective story, who are found in high and low station, among old and young, know these rules, and resent any departure from them. It might be added to the current estimate of Poe's service in this department of letters that these rules go back to his small collection of detective stories, and that very few of his imitators have been able to keep to them consistently.
The Stock Exchange itself is not founded to a greater extent on confidence than the good detective story. The real detectives of Mulberry Street or Scotland Yard are misled every day by misstatements of fact, errors of observation, plain lies. The detective of fiction should never be so misled. When he errs it should be because he has drawn the wrong conclusions from evidence in itself reliable. If he fires his revolver at an apparition, and there is no sound of breaking glass, the reader has a right to say, "Well, it wasn't a mirror," and is justly indignant when he is told later that the marksman merely missed his aim. The detective of fiction is likewise, under the rules, discouraged from discovering his important evidence at the last moment. To illustrate, one of this year's crop of long detective stories is concerned with the murder, in succession, always on the thirtieth day in the month, of the five sons of a retired army officer. Since the young men had neither friends nor enemies in common, the suggestion is at once made that the murderer must be some one who is avenging some past wrong against the father. The father is interrogated, and states that he knows of no personal enemy, and has wronged no one in his long life. The reader is thereupon entitled to discard all theories having to do with the old gentleman's past; and for nearly three hundred pages follows an amazingly intricate structure of plot. The reader learns various ingenious reasons why persons with no grudge against the father should still have desired the death of all the sons. He sees one person after another suspected and exonerated. Then, on page 280, a veiled woman comes into the story, and it appears that the officer on the thirtieth day of a bygone month had hanged two of his natural sons, and their mother was giving him tit for tat. That is an excellent example of the detective story as it ought not to be.
Poe knew the art of mystifying without resorting to the concealment of clues. Capt. Kidd's cipher in "The Gold Bug" is given the reader in full to decipher, if he can. Half-way through "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" the reader has every reason that Dupin had to supply the mischievous ourangoutang, if only he has the wit to put his facts together. It is still a paradox that Poe, the literary artist, should be the founder of a school of fiction in which, as in the puzzle corner of a newspaper, bad and slovenly writing is practically no bar to success.Resources:
- "Poe and the Detective Story" (7 pages) is online HERE.
- Poe certainly deserves credit for inventing the modern detective story, comprised of what Hillary Waugh designated as the 12 "essential ingredients of the mystery"; but as Waugh also noted, Poe failed to include one more ingredient, the one whose absence our Nation editor indignantly objects to, the one millions of mystery readers (including Neil Simon) have
complained about for centuries; go HERE to see what we mean.
Category: Detective fiction criticism