Any consideration of the history of mystery and detective fiction must start by separating the traditional meaning of the word “mystery” from the genre that bears the name. Even the earliest-known writings of humankind contain elements of mystery. Mystery, as the is word now commonly understood, is the unknown, the unanswered. This is a very different meaning from that used in mystery novels, in which mystery goes from being only one of the elements in a story to being the central purpose of a story. Gothic romance novels, which predate the modern mystery, utilized mysterious elements in their plots, often using the supernatural in combination with dark, long-hidden family secrets that were revealed to readers slowly throughout their pages.
The American author Edgar Allan Poe extracted the mystery element from gothic romance novels and made it the core of three short stories, beginning with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841. With that short story. Poe established a pattern that is still used today. At the center of the story is the crime: two mutilated women in a locked room on an upper floor of a Parisian apartment building. One of the women has been nearly beheaded, the other is stuffed halfway up the chimney. After shocking readers with the brutality of the crime that has already been committed, Poe introduced his detective, C. Auguste Dupin. An amateur detective, Dupin relates his theories to the story’s unnamed narrator, who marvels at Dupin’s brilliance. In this story, then, can be seen the prototypes for future pairings of detectives and companions, of which the most famous include Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Captain Arthur Hastings, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.
Poe’s story also gave the genre its first locked-room mystery. With no evident way in which a murderer could have entered or left the locked room in which the dead women are found, a profound puzzle takes center stage in Poe’s story, and the story is the mystery. The telling of the story, the introduction of the detective, the interviewing of witnesses, the apparent contradictions and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and finally the solving of the case through what Poe termed ratiocination, the triumph of reason.
While Poe influenced virtually all the mystery story writers who would follow him, he had literary influences of his own. For example, he was familiar with François-Eugène Vidocq, the real-life French detective whose four-volume memoirs, a blend of fact and fiction, was published in 1828. Vidocq was a life-long criminal who became a police detective and is credited with starting the first detective agency. Poe mentions Vidocq by name in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Vidocq also served as the model forÉmile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq who first appeared in 1869. Gaboriau was an admitted follower of Poe’s style, and they both were influenced by the legend of Vidocq who, interestingly enough, was also the model for Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (1862).
Poe followed “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” with two more short stories featuring Dupin. He based “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) on the true story of the murder of Mary Rogers in New York City. “The Purloined Letter” (1844) is a story in which the property that is stolen remains hidden in plain sight. Poe’s enduring contribution to the mystery genre, these three short stories provided the framework that later writers in Great Britain, France, America, and the rest of the world would adopt and occasionally improve upon.
Nineteenth Century British and French Mystery Novels
After Poe’s three stories, the genre lay dormant for a decade or two. Eventually, three writers in Europe, one in France and two in England, began to fulfill the promise of Poe’s legacy. Émile Gaboriau’s L’Affaire Lerouge (1866) was the first work in the tradition of Poe to be published in Europe. Monsieur Lecoq became the main character...
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