Edgar Allan Poe Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2683

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.

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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 methodical reasoning ability.

Poe’s famous gothic stories of psychological obsession, such as “The Black Cat,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “Ligeia,” seem at first glance quite different from his ratiocinative stories of detection. In many ways, however, they are very similar: Both types depend on some secret guilt that must be exposed; in both, the central character is an eccentric whose mind seems distant from the minds of ordinary men; and both types are elaborate puzzles filled with clues that must be tied together before the reader can understand their overall effect.

“The Oblong Box”

“The Oblong Box” and “Thou Art the Man,” both written in 1844, are often cited as combining the gothic and the ratiocinative thrusts of Poe’s genius. The narrator of “The Oblong Box,” while on a packet-ship journey from Charleston, South Carolina, to New York City, becomes unusually curious about an oblong pine box that is kept in the state room of an old school acquaintance, Cornelius Wyatt. In the course of the story, the narrator uses deductive processes to arrive at the conclusion that Wyatt, an artist, is smuggling to New York a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” done by a famous Florentine painter.

When a storm threatens to sink the ship, Wyatt ties himself to the mysterious box and, to the horror of the survivors, sinks into the sea with it. Not until a month after the event does the narrator learn that the box contained Wyatt’s wife embalmed in salt. Although earlier in the story the narrator prided himself on his superior acumen in guessing that the box contained a painting, at the conclusion he admits that his mistakes were the result of both his carelessness and his impulsiveness. The persistent deductive efforts of the narrator to explain the mystery of the oblong box, combined with the sense of horror that arises from the image of the artist’s plunging to his death with the corpse of his beautiful young wife, qualifies this story, although a minor tale in the Poe canon, as a unique combination of the gothic and the ratiocinative.

“Thou Art the Man”

“Thou Art the Man,” although often characterized as a satire of small-town life and manners, is also an interesting but minor contribution to the genre. The story is told in an ironic tone by a narrator who proposes to account for the disappearance of Mr. Barnabus Shuttleworthy, one of the town’s wealthiest and most respected citizens. When Shuttleworthy’s nephew is accused of murdering his uncle, Charley Goodfellow, a close friend of Shuttleworthy, makes every effort to defend the young man. Every word he utters to exalt and support the suspected nephew, however, serves only to deepen the townspeople’s suspicion of him.

Throughout the story, Goodfellow is referred to as “Old Charley” and is praised as a man who is generous, open, frank, and honest. At the story’s conclusion, he receives a huge box supposedly containing wine promised him by the murdered man before his death. When the box is opened, however, the partially decomposed corpse of Shuttleworthy sits up in the box, points his finger at Goodfellow, and says, “Thou art the man!” Goodfellow, not surprisingly, confesses to the murder.

Although the basic ironies of Charley’s not being such a “good fellow” after all and of his efforts to have the nephew convicted even as he pretended to have him exonerated are central to the story’s plot, the final irony focuses on the means by which Goodfellow is made to confess. It is Goodfellow’s frankness and honesty that causes the narrator to distrust him from the beginning and thus find the corpse, stick a piece of whale bone down its throat to cause it to sit up in the box, and use ventriloquism to make it seem as if the corpse utters the words of the title. The tale introduces such typical detective-story conventions as the creation of false clues by the criminal and the discovery of the criminal as the least likely suspect.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

It is in the C. Auguste Dupin stories, however, that Poe develops most of the conventions of the detective story, devices that have been used by other writers ever since. The first of the three stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is the most popular because it combines horrifying, seemingly inexplicable events with astonishing feats of deductive reasoning. The narrator, the forerunner of Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories, meets Dupin in this story and very early recognizes that he has a double personality, for he is both wildly imaginative and coldly analytical. The reader’s first encounter with Dupin’s deductive ability takes place even before the murders occur, when he seems to read his companion’s mind by responding to something that the narrator had only been thinking. When Dupin explains the elaborate method by which he followed the narrator’s thought processes by noticing small details and associating them, the reader has the beginning of a long history of fictional detectives taking great pleasure in recounting the means by which they solved a mystery.

Dupin’s knowledge of the brutal murder of a mother and daughter on the Rue Morgue is acquired by the same means that any ordinary citizen might learn of a murder—the newspapers. As was to become common in the amateur-sleuth genre, Dupin scorns the methods of the professional investigators as being insufficient. He argues that the police find the mystery insoluble for the very reason that it should be regarded as easy to solve, that is, its bizarre nature; thus, the facility with which Dupin solves the case is in direct proportion to its apparent insolubility by the police.

The heart of the story focuses on Dupin’s extended explanation of how he solved the crime rather than on the action of the crime itself. The points about the murder that stump the police—the contradiction of several neighbors who describe hearing a voice in several foreign languages, and the fact that there seems to be no possible means of entering or exiting the room where the murders took place—actually enable Dupin to master the case. He accounts for the foreign-sounding voice by deducing that the criminal must have been an animal; he explains the second point by following a mode of reasoning based on a process of elimination to determine that apparent impossibilities are in fact possible. When Dupin reveals that an escaped orangutan did the killing, the Paris prefect of police complains that Dupin should mind his own business. Dupin is nevertheless content to have beaten the prefect in his own realm; descendants of Dupin have been beating police inspectors ever since.

“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”

“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” although it also focuses on Dupin’s solving of a crime primarily from newspaper reports, is actually based on the murder of a young girl, Mary Cecilia Rogers, near New York City. Because the crime had not been solved when Poe wrote the story, he made use of the facts of the case to tell a story of the murder of a young Parisian girl, Marie Rogêt, as a means of demonstrating his superior deductive ability.

The story ostensibly begins two years after the events of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” when the prefect of police, having failed to solve the Marie Rogêt case himself, worries about his reputation and asks Dupin for help. Dupin’s method is that of the classic armchair detective; he gathers all the copies of the newspapers that have accounts of the crime and sets about methodically examining each one. He declares the case more intricate than that of the Rue Morgue because, ironically, it seems so simple.

One of the elements of the story that makes it less popular than the other two Dupin tales is the extensive analysis of the newspaper articles in which Dupin engages—an analysis that makes the story read more like an article critical of newspaper techniques than a narrative story. In fact, what makes Poe able to propose a solution to the crime is not so much his knowledge of crime as his knowledge of the conventions of newspaper writing. In a similar manner, it was his knowledge of the conventions of novel writing that made it possible for him to deduce the correct conclusion of Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ’80 (1841) the previous year when he had read only one or two of the first installments.

Another aspect of “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” that reflects Dupin’s deductive genius and that has been used by subsequent detective writers is his conviction that the usual error of the police is to pay too much attention to the immediate events while ignoring the peripheral evidence. Both experience and true philosophy, says Dupin, show that truth arises more often from the seemingly irrelevant than from the so-called strictly relevant. By this means, Dupin eliminates the various hypotheses for the crime proposed by the newspapers and proposes his own hypothesis, which is confirmed by the confession of the murderer.

Although “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” contains some of the primary conventions that find their way into later detective stories, it is the least popular of the Dupin narratives not only because it contains much reasoning and exposition and very little narrative but also because it is so long and convoluted. Of the many experts of detective fiction who have commented on Poe’s contribution to the genre, only Dorothy L. Sayers has praised “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” calling it a story especially for connoisseurs, a serious intellectual exercise rather than a sensational thriller such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

“The Purloined Letter”

Professional literary critics, however, if not professional detective writers, have singled out “The Purloined Letter” as the most brilliant of Poe’s ratiocinative works. This time, the crime is much more subtle than murder, for it focuses on political intrigue and manipulation. Although the crime is quite simple—the theft of a letter from an exalted and noble personage—its effects are quite complex. The story depends on several ironies: First, the identity of the criminal is known, for he stole the letter in plain sight of the noble lady; second, the letter is a threat to the lady from whom he stole it only as long as he does nothing with it; and third, the Paris Police cannot find the letter, even though they use the most sophisticated and exhaustive methods, precisely because, as Dupin deduces, it is in plain sight.

Also distinguishing the story from the other two is Dupin’s extended discussion of the important relationship between the seemingly disparate talents of the mathematician and the poet. The minister who has stolen the letter is successful, says Dupin, for he is both a poet and a mathematician. In turn, Dupin’s method of discovering the location of the letter is to take on the identity of a poet and mathematician, thus allowing him to identify with the mind of the criminal. The method follows the same principle used by a young boy Dupin knows of who is an expert at the game of “even and odd,” a variation of the old game of holding an object behind one’s back and asking someone to guess which hand holds the prize. The boy always wins, not because he is a good guesser but because he fashions the expression on his face to match the face of the one holding the object and then tries to see which thoughts correspond with that expression.

The various techniques of deduction developed by Poe in the Dupin stories are so familiar to readers of detective fiction that to read his stories is to be reminded that very few essential conventions of the genre have been invented since Poe. Indeed, with the publication of the Dupin stories, Poe truly can be said to have single-handedly brought the detective story into being.

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