Friday, March 6, 2009

Forgotten books: Poe's Detective Stories

(This is part of Patti Abbott's Forgotten Books Project. Head on over to her blog to be reminded of more books you know you've forgotten.)

Edgar Allan Poe is such a show-off. How many different genres did he invent or refine? A dozen? It sometimes seems so. With the bicentennial of his birth this year, I decided to read all three of the world’s first detective stories. The stories featuring detective C. Auguste Dupin are not forgotten by most of us. Even I knew about two of them just by living and being aware of literature. But I had never really read them. Now I have.

The most important things about Poe’s three detective stories are the story tropes he invented. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) was a locked-room mystery. I don’t know if it was the first but it’s the first one I know about. Who brutally murdered a woman and her daughter? Witnesses seem confused and the data seems contradictory. And, besides, the room was locked from the inside. The police are, of course, utterly baffled. Enter Dupin and his unnamed, first person narrator. The first dynamic duo visit the site and Dupin finds a clue the police missed. This clue leads Dupin to ratiocinate (his word; just think of Sherlock Holmes’ observational deductive theories) the true murderer. I’m not going to give it away for those of you who still need to read this story. It’s pretty cool and the logic is easy to follow.

Can’t say the same thing about the second story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842). In an afterward, Poe explains that he fictionalized the real details of the death of Mary Rogers. His goal was to solve the real-life murder of Mary Rogers using logic and ratiocination. I’m sorry. If Poe was going to fictionalize a story like this, he could have made it much more exciting. The logic is so complicated and detailed, I frankly, couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Shoot, I could see the trees for the twigs, the weeds, the dirt, and the moss. It was boring. It was interminably long and ponderous. And, unlike traditional back-and-forth dialogue, this story was over eighty percent Dupin just talking. And talking. And talking. I couldn’t stop thinking about Wallace Shawn’s character from “The Princess Bride” who drones on and on about which vial the dread Pirate Roberts placed the poison. I was glad I listened to this story. It made Houston traffic exciting by comparison. And we didn’t even get the pay-off. The story ends with Dupin basically saying, “If the police look for _____ (no spoilers here although I could just save you the trouble and…), the murderer will surely be found.” Poe trumpeted his own logic in the afterward where he laid claim to knowing the true culprit before confessions proved his point. That’s all well and good but, in a fictional story, at least give me a good ending. No, wait: give me a coherent story.

“The Purloined Letter” (1844) is easily the most accessible of the three stories primarily because we recognize the pattern. If you’ve read any Sherlock Holmes story, you know the pattern. There is a crime (stolen letter) and—wait for it—the police are baffled. They know who stole the letter and have turned his house inside and out looking for it. Dupin (actually Poe) telegraphs the ending of the story early on when he comments that, perhaps, the answer is simple. Dupin’s thesis is much like Holmes’: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I think the ending of this story is well known but, still, I won’t ruin it for you.

In my Sunday school class, we are discussing the differences between exegesis and eisegesis. The former describes an objective attempt to read the Bible (or whatever text) from the context of the writer. The latter describes how we insert our modern influences upon the Bible. That is, we read into the Bible. The same principles can be applied to Poe’s detective stories. Reading them for the first time in 2009, having had a century and a half of mystery and detective stories under our belts, to say nothing of television and movies, you can see where Poe’s stories fall in the hierarchy of mystery literature. You can also see how they measure up to other stories and compare and contrast them. You can see how other authors took Poe's ideas and concepts and, frankly, did them better. This is eisegesis.

But if you look at these stories with an exegetical eye, your mouth will probably hang open at the sheer audacity of invention from Poe’s pen. Out of nothing did Poe create a wholly new archetype, the detective, complete with quirks and idiosyncrasies. Out of nothing did Poe create the murder mystery and the locked room mystery. Heck he created what we know now as a mystery. It’s a phenomenal work of genius.

I guess I can excuse him for showing off. If I’d invented half the things he did, I’d show off, too.


David Cranmer said...

Exegesis and eisegesis. Now that's a deep and meaningful Sunday school class. As for Poe I am also in awe of the many genres he created or influenced. I’ve read where he would keep tweaking stories long after they were published which I can appreciate. Recently, I reviewed the graphic novel NEVERMORE and I think you would enjoy this book.

pattinase (abbott) said...

You always manage to insert something interesting, Scott.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I love these Poe stories - you can see that he influenced Conan Doyle quite a bit.

Martin Edwards said...

Excellent post. Thanks.

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