Poe’s Disciples

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The canonical popular version of this classical tradition of the mystery as a puzzle to be solved is the British writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which began with A Study in Scarlet in 1887. Some purists have objected that essential information available to Holmes is often withheld from readers and that is cheating on the part of the author. Nevertheless, the immense success of the Sherlock Holmes stories paved the way for similar work by later British writers, such as Agatha Christie. Although the predominance of this type of mystery among British writers has led to its being thought of as the “English school,” in opposition to the more realistic types of mysteries written by Americans around the 1920’s, it should be remembered that this classic model was invented by the American Poe and practiced by other major American mystery writers. The thirty-three Nero Wolfe novels that Rex Stout published between 1934 and 1975 constitute some of the best examples of the type; they are complete with an eccentric armchair detective and a narrator sidekick.

It should also be noted that later writers have continued to develop the field that Poe first mapped out. For example, the late twentieth century saw the rise of a new subgenre, the police procedural, which eliminates the brilliant private detective and instead follows the painstaking routines of real police work. A particularly successful contemporary version of the police procedural is found in the enormous popularity of forensic medicine as an alternative to police work for the protagonist’s profession, as exemplified by Patricia Cornwell’s series about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and the many television series linked by the “crime scene investigation” (CSI) label, as authors have continued to develop every permutation of Poe’s original formula.