Thomas Bailey Aldrich Critical Essays

Thomas Bailey Aldrich Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Thomas Bailey Aldrich was a true product of the Romantic movement in American letters of the nineteenth century, attracted to the fanciful, the sophisticated, and the exotic. Although life around him was increasingly oriented toward the practical and the materialistic, his major focus, even in tales of mystery, was on the imaginatively created world of shadows and suggestion. His most famous story, “Marjorie Daw,” concerns a nonexistent main character who lives entirely in the sensibility of the key correspondent. Heralded abroad and widely anthologized, the story reveals Aldrich’s keen sense of popular taste, an awareness that he assiduously cultivated in his job as a magazine editor.

Out of His Head

The gothic world of mystery and detective fiction was thus tailor-made for Aldrich’s literary proclivities. Out of His Head mirrors the arabesque and the bizarre, the chilling and the gruesome. A series of sketches and reveries, the work purports to be edited by Aldrich from the papers of Paul Lynde, a highly articulate but unfortunate gentleman whose “hereditary peculiarity” necessitates his placement in an asylum. There he composes reminiscences of an adventurous life filled with lost love, misery, illness, disease, and death. Lynde resembles many of Poe’s morbid heroes, and his Moon Apparatus, an infernal machine with which he tinkers from time to time, reveals the profundity of his imagination. Most interesting in this work are chapters 10 through 14, which form a complete detective story. The narrative focuses on the discovery of a dead body in a sealed chamber. Depositions reveal the impossibility of suicide, and the authorities are naturally puzzled. Lynde, with his acutely penetrating powers of observation, discerns the murderer but reveals his discovery only to the murderer himself, who, Lynde hopes, will be forever driven by his dark conscience. Lynde himself confesses to the crime simply to experience a new and different ecstasy—that of an innocent man hanged.

Although this ultimate experience is denied him, Lynde’s literary ruminations—composed by a person “out of his head” and ranging from witchcraft to a fatal, masked incident at the New Orleans Mardi Gras—establish the editor Aldrich as a master of mood and of what Poe called ratiocination.

Marjorie Daw and Other People

The literary specter of Poe hangs heavily over two particular tales in Aldrich’s Marjorie Daw and Other People, especially in the psychological portraits of the protagonists and the nightmarish scenarios involved. “A Struggle for...

(The entire section is 1075 words.)