Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“De Mortuis” belongs to a specialized mystery subgenre often called “the body in the basement story.” It also belongs to the larger subgenre of “perfect crime” stories. In typical stories of this type, a man murders a relative, buries the body somewhere inside his home, and congratulates himself that he has gotten away with the perfect crime. Then, because of some fatal mistake, the murderer is caught and punished. Poe, the American genius who created many modern literary genres, was responsible for the popularity of both body-in-the-basement and perfect-crime stories. Examples of Poe’s contributions are “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado.”

What makes Collier’s “De Mortuis” so effective is its ironic twists, its departure from the norm. In order to appreciate Collier’s story, the reader must be familiar with stories of the conventional pattern, such as those of Poe and his imitators. Collier plays with fictional conventions in a manner that is hypermodern. Writing in the earlier decades of the twentieth century, he presaged some of the experimental innovations of much later writers. Collier is a sophisticated modern writer addressing sophisticated modern readers of magazines such as The New Yorker. “De Mortuis” almost completely reverses traditional mystery story conventions, betraying the reader’s expectations: Because no body has actually been buried in the basement, it appears that the...

(The entire section is 546 words.)