E. L. Doctorow, who was named “Edgar” after Edgar Allan Poe, has called The Waterworks his “Poe story.” Certainly, the novel has elements of Poe in its combined interest in science and detection, its detective-story format, its fascination with the crossover between life and death, and its narrator who defends his sanity. The dead man who will not stay dead and the ghastly exhumation scene in the eerie night mist are also reminiscent of Poe. Yet there is also the Nathaniel Hawthorne theme of the scientist who tries to conquer the forces of nature and puts the love of science before the love of humanity. There is also a glimpse of Herman Melville’s innocent narrators, trying to search out the truth behind the pasteboard mask of life.
The Waterworks, like other novels by Doctorow, takes place in New York City. Together with The Waterworks, Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), Billy Bathgate (1989), and The Book of Daniel (1971) explore the panorama of a hundred years of New York. Like his other novels, The Waterworks focuses on a historical figure; as J. P. Morgan appears in Ragtime and Dutch Schultz in Billy Bathgate, Boss Tweed looms over The Waterworks. Also as in his other novels, Doctorow uses the framework of a popular genre to create a novel of ideas. He used the Western in Welcome to Hard Times (1960) and the gangster story in Billy Bathgate; in The Waterworks, he uses mystery detection with an element of science fiction. In The Waterworks, Doctorow once again raises history to the level of myth.