It will be found that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly
imaginative never otherwise than analytic.—EDGAR ALLAN POE, "The Murders in
the Rue Morgue"
As poet and mathematician, he could reason well; as mere mathematician he
could not have reasoned at all.—EDGAR ALLAN POE, "The Purloined Letter"
The history of the detective story begins with the publication of "The
Murders in the Rue Morgue."—BEANDER MATTHEWS.
TIPPECANOE (and Tyler, too) had triumphed at the polls, in an exciting
spectacle of red fire and illuminated log cabins. Pigs annoyed visiting
European celebrities in the streets of the largest cities. Respectable
burghers nodded of an evening over the verses of Mr. Longfellow and the
novels of Mr. Paulding and Mr. Simms. Their good wives scanned the pages of
Godey's, The Gift, and The Token; the children, had been put to sleep
(rather readily, one imagines) with the indubitably instructive works of
Peter Parley. "Society" danced polkas and Prince Albert waltzes, blew its
nose on its fingers, and applauded with genteel kid gloves the rival
pomposities of Edwin Forrest and Junius Booth. "Elegance'' was the watchword
of the day. Meanwhile, enterprising tradesmen turned handsome profits in
Mineral Teeth, Pile Electuaries, Chinese Hair Eradicators, and Swedish
Leeches. Still-new-fangled steam carriages jiggled and bounced adventurously
between the more populous centers. The Great Western and her sister express
packets (now only two weeks the crossing) brought all the news from abroad
and the latest British romances for church-going publishers to pirate. In
New York, Horace Greeley was busy founding his Tribune. In the White House,
his term of office but a month old, William Henry Harrison lay already
dying—carrying with him a struggling young author's hopes for political
preferment. Mr. Brady was soon to open his Daguerrian Gallery. Mr. Morse had
forsaken his fashionable portraits to tinker in seclusion with a queer
contraption of keys and wires. And on the distant Illinois sod a lanky young
giant was riding his first law circuits.
In short—America in 1841.
Philadelphia was a-tingle with the pleasurable sensations of a literary
revival. Frankly commercial, often hopelessly lacking in taste, this
renaissance nevertheless wore the face of popular and democratic revolt. The
concept of "literature" for the few was giving way to the idea of "reading"
for the many. Since the days of Ben Franklin, William Penn's city had been
famous as a printing center. Now it was realizing its assets. The golden age
of cheap magazine publishing was beginning, and Philadelphia was its
American Athens. Here were printers and popular journals: the Carey and Lea
firms, Codecs, Atkin-son's, the Gentleman's, Graham's, Alexander's, the
Saturday Evening Post, the Dollar Newspaper—among many. Here were editors:
Burton, Godey, Graham, the Petersons, Mrs. Hale, the "Reverend" Griswold.
Here were artists and engravers: Sully, Sartain, Darley, Neagle, and a host
of lesser names. Here were writers of all descriptions: R. M. Bird, T. S.
Arthur, Eliza Leslie, "Grace Greenwood," Willis Gaylord Clark, Captain Mayne
Reid, George Lippard, "Judge" Conrad, Henry Beck Hirst, "Penn" Smith, Jane
and Sumner Fairfield, Joseph and Alice Neal, Thomas Dunn English. And—like a
stray cock-pheasant in a sedate domestic fowlyard—Edgar Allan Poe, age
thirty-two; critic, poet, and story-teller, currently the guiding editor of
Tragic Israfel was now at flood tide of success and happiness. The statement
is relative and requires explanation. In return for his editorial duties at
Graham's, Poe was receiving the startling salary of eight hundred dollars a
year—more than he ever earned before or afterward. His child-wife, Virginia,
was temporarily in good health, as was Poe himself. His salary enabled him
for the first, and only, time to provide the necessities of life regularly,
and even to add such luxuries as a harp and a tiny piano for Virginia.
Faithful, harassed "Muddie" Clemm (Virginia's mother and Poe's
foster-mother, surely one of the longest-suffering and noblest women in
literary history) could smile for once as she went about her tasks as mater-familias
of the little household. Her "Eddie's" bulging head was full of plans for a
periodical of his own. Meanwhile, under his editorship Graham's became the
world's first mass-circulation magazine, leaping in a few short months from
a conventional five thousand readers to an unprecedented forty thousand.
Poe's own writings were of a uniformly higher standard and greater number
than at any other point in his career. The cream of them he contributed to
Graham's, and they had a large share in its success. An inspiring if
unmethodical editor, as well as the most imaginative and stimulating
intellect of his time and place, Poe in his own works constantly pointed the
way to new fields.
Crime had early claimed his attention. So had puzzles. In Graham's for
April, 1841, he joined them together. The terrified dreamer of "The
Tell-Tale ' Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" met the analytic
solver of cryptograms, the astute completer of Edwin Drood, on common soil.
The result was a new type of tale.
It was a tale of crime, but it was also a tale of ratiocination. It had a
brutal murder for its subject, but it had a paragon of crisp logic for its
hero. It was "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
It was the world's first detective story.
Puzzle stories, mystery stories, crime stories, and stories of deduction and
analysis have existed since the earliest times—and the detective story is
closely related to them all. Yet the detective Story itself is purely a
development of the modern age. Chronologically, it could not have been
For the essential theme of the detective story is professional detection of
crime. This is its raison d'etre, the distinguishing element that makes it a
detective story and sets it apart from its "cousins" in the puzzle family.
Clearly, there could be no detective stories (and there were none) until
there were detectives. This did not occur until the nineteenth century.
Early civilizations had no police at all in the modern sense of the word.
Crime suppression (what there was of it) was a side job of the military,
with a little help from private guards. Both relied on bludgeons rather than
brains for the meager results they achieved. Consequently, most felony went
unpunished. When malefactors grew too audacious, the handiest luckless
suspect was gibbeted, roasted, or garroted as an example; and authority was
Such crude methods could be effective, of course, only as long as entire
nations lived under what to-day would be regarded as martial law. As the
complex way of life we call modern civilization gradually developed, the
weakness as well as the brutality of the system became increasingly
apparent. Enlightened men began to realize that only by methodical
apprehension and just punishment of actual offenders could crime be
adequately curbed and controlled.
So torture slowly gave way to proof, ordeal to evidence, the rack and the
thumb-screw to the trained investigator.
And once the investigator had fully arrived, the detective story followed,
as a matter of course.
This would all seem to be sufficiently plain. Yet a curious misconception
regarding the origin of detective fiction has gained currency in recent
years. The foundations of this error lie chiefly in the presence of
deductive and analytical tales in some of the ancient literatures. This
ancestral resemblance (at most) has misled certain otherwise estimable
writers, who really should know better, into "discovering" detective stories
in Herodotus and the Bible and kindred sources. Fascinating as this game
doubtless is, the thoughtful reader can have but scant patience with so
manifest a confusion of terms. For the deductive method is only one of a
number of elements that make up detection, and to*mistake the part for the
whole is simply to be guilty of non distributio medii. It would be quite as
logical to maintain that the primitive pipings of the Aegean shepherds were
symphonies—because the modern symphony includes passages for reed
instruments in its scores! As the symphony began with Haydn, so did the
detective story begin with Poe. Like everything else in this world, both had
precursors; but no useful purpose is served by trying to prove that either
flourished before it did or could. The best and final word on the matter has
been said by the English bibliophile George Bates: "The cause of Chaucer's
silence on the subject of airplanes was because he had never seen one. You
cannot write about policemen before policemen exist to be written of."
It is no more than fair to note, however, that the puzzle tales which have
come down to us from the comparatively advanced Hellenic and Hebraic
civilizations bear a closer resemblance to the present-day detective story
than do the puzzle tales of any other age before modern times. This
circumstance would seem to foreshadow the sharply parallel development of
the detective story and the democratic processes: a fascinating subject in
itself, which is more fully discussed in Chapter XV of this book.
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