Edgar Allan Poe—Mystery Firsts

I don’t know where you went to school but at my school discussions about the works of Edgar Allen Poe were very structured and limited.  The emphasis was always on his poetry which Poe would appreciate since poetry was his first love. In the more advanced courses you might be lucky enough to read some of his stories.

However, the writings that were overlooked were Poe’s mystery stories. I think they were left off the reading list because mysteries were viewed as not representative of good
literature.  This was unfortunate for the student because there was much to learn from these stories plus they would have been a fun read for the class.

So forget your English lit classes from the past, here is our opportunity to view Poe as the “Father” of the detective story from a mystery lover’s perspective. And more importantly for mystery readers Poe was responsible for so many firsts in the genre.

Poe wrote only three stories classified as true mysteries:

  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue–which for the first time featured a locked room and used forensic evidence found on the body of the victim to solve the crime.
  • The Mystery of Marie Roget—was based on the true crime murder of Mary Rogers whose body was found floating in the Hudson River.
  • The Purloined Letter—where the evidence is hidden in plain sight.

Poe is called the “Father” of the Detective Story because he was the first writer to use an amateur detective to solve a crime that baffles the local police. We’ve talked about the Golden Age Mysteries and the rules that those books follow. But before that age Poe was the first to start the rule book. Poe felt that the detective had to play fair with no hidden secrets or clues and he felt that the story should be readable. Not an essay but an enjoyable piece of fiction.

Let’s take a closer look at Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin who was featured in these three stories. Dupin was once from a wealthy family but in the stories we find him living a more humble life. However, he certainly has the style of the gentleman detective used later by other writers in their mystery stories. He lives in Paris with a close friend who is the anonymous narrator of the story.  It’s also a first to have the associate tell the story.

Dupin practices what Poe refers to as ratiocination which is his detective’s way of
using rational logic and putting himself into the criminal’s mind. We see this technique in the Purloined letter when Dupin is able deduce that the letter must still be in the criminal’s apartment based on his behavior. This is the first time where evidence is hidden in plain sight and we see this element employed in many mystery stories since Poe’s introduction.

Poe’s detective is logical and bases his deductions on analyzing what he learns from the facts and clues presented. But he then combines this with keen observations picking up on casual remarks or gestures that others miss.

Does this method remind you of other detectives? Watson in A Study in Scarlet compares Holmes to Dupin although Holmes does not feel this is a compliment.  However Arthur Conan Doyle was much more complimentary when he stated “where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” The methods of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot when he relies on “his little gray cells” are certainly similar to Dupin’s. And don’t forget the fictional detective Poirot writes a book about Poe. Obviously both of these writers recognized Poe’s contributions to the field.

Dupin also conducts interviews to gather his facts and summarizes the results of the
case. This is for the reader’s benefit in case they missed a clue. This methodology is yet another example of Poe establishing something that has continued throughout the years within the mystery genre.

While Poe may have only written three detective stories, these stories offer so many firsts that are used over and over again within the genre. I’ve only mentioned a few of the firsts. If you have the opportunity, read some of Poe’s Dupin stories and see what other firsts you can discover.


Note: The Mystery Writers of America present an annual award known as The Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre. What a nice honor for the man who created so many firsts for mysteries.

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