American Mystery Fiction Summary

Poe’s Invention of the Detective Story

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

All English-language mystery fiction derives, directly or indirectly, from three short stories written by the American author Edgar Allan Poe during the early 1840’s: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.” These three stories set the essential characteristics by which a new literary genre was defined. Virtually all works of literature contain mysteries in the widest sense of the term, as both characters and readers must normally wait until the stories end to learn what happens. However, Poe was the first author to focus on logical solutions of central problems through expert interpretation of clues by specialized problem-solving agents. Most earlier crime fiction had taken the form of pseudoautobiographical memoirs by criminals or, more rarely, police officers; however, those stories were simply loosely episodic adventure stories, rarely concerned with puzzle solving. The most famous of these early crime stories was Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de la police de Sûreté jusqu’en 1827 (1828-1829; Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police Until 1827, 1828-1829). That work details the career of Eugène-François Vidocq, a French criminal who became a police informer and then, in 1811, a full-time detective for the French Sûreté. After he retired, he published his memoirs in four volumes. Written mostly by professional ghostwriters, his melodramatic memoirs became sensational best sellers. Although Poe was apparently not impressed by either the French detective or his methods, he must have been impressed by the popularity and potential of the new field of crime fiction.

Poe’s debt to Vidocq is implicit in his own writings, in which his fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, makes a disparaging remark about Vidocq’s inadequate education and analytic scope. However, although Poe’s stories are set in Paris, he creates a different type of detective and a new type of mystery. The basic ingredients of...

(The entire section is 819 words.)