Edgar Allan Poe Edgar Allan Poe Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Edgar Allan Poe book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Edgar Allan Poe Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Edgar Allan Poe Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Edgar Allan Poe is credited as the creator of the detective story and the character type known as the amateur sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin and his ratiocinative ability were clearly influenced by other sources. Two probable sources are Voltaire’s Zadig: Ou, La Destinée, Histoire orientale (1748; Zadig: Or, The Book of Fate, 1749) and François-Eugène Vidocq’s 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). Poe mentions Zadig in “Hop-Frog” and thus most likely knew the story of Zadig’s ability to deduce the description of the king’s horse and the queen’s dog by examining tracks on the ground and hair left on bushes. He also mentions Vidocq, the first real-life detective, in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” as a “good guesser,” but one who could not see clearly because he held the object of investigation too close.

Poe’s creation of the ratiocinative story also derives from broader and more basic interests and sources. First, there was his interest in the aesthetic theory of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, heavily indebted to nineteenth century German Romanticism. In several of Poe’s most famous critical essays, such as his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837) and his theoretical articles, “Philosophy of Composition” in 1846 and “The Poetic Principle” in 1848, Poe develops his own version of the theory of the artwork as a form in which every detail contributes to the overall effect. This organic aesthetic theory clearly influenced Poe’s creation of the detective genre, in which every detail, even the most minor, may be a clue to the solution of the story’s central mystery.

The development of the mystery and detective genre also reflected the influence of gothic fiction. The gothic novel, based on the concept of hidden sin and filled with mysterious and unexplained events, had, like the detective story, to move inexorably toward a denouement that would explain all the previous puzzles. The first gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765), with its secret guilt and cryptic clues, was thus an early source of the detective story.

A third source was Poe’s fascination with cryptograms, riddles, codes, and other conundrums and puzzles. In an article in a weekly magazine in 1839, he offered to solve any and all cryptograms submitted; in a follow-up article in 1841, he said that he had indeed solved most of them. Although Poe demonstrated his skill as a solver of puzzles in many magazine articles, the most famous fictional depiction of his skill as a cryptographer is his story “The Gold Bug.”

“The Gold Bug”

William Legrand, the central character in “The Gold Bug,” shares some characteristics with Poe’s famous amateur sleuth, Dupin. Legrand is of an illustrious family, but because of financial misfortunes, he has been reduced to near poverty. Although he is of French ancestry from New Orleans, he lives alone on an island near Charleston, South Carolina. In addition, like Dupin, he alternates between melancholia and enthusiasm, which leads the narrator (also like the narrator in the Dupin stories) to suspect that he is the victim of a species of madness.

The basic premise of the story is that Legrand is figuratively bitten by the gold bug after discovering a piece of parchment on which he finds a cryptogram with directions to the buried treasure of the pirate Captain Kidd. As with the more influential Dupin stories, “The Gold Bug” focuses less on action than on the explanation of the steps toward the solution of its mystery. To solve the puzzle of the cryptogram, Legrand demonstrates the essential qualities of the amateur detective: close attention to minute detail, extensive information about language and mathematics, far-reaching knowledge about his opponent (in this case Captain Kidd), and, most important, a perceptive intuition as well as a...

(The entire section is 2,683 words.)