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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 1 Page 2

Time 1841 - Place America

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 The first systematic experiments in professional crime-detection were naturally made in the largest centers of population, where the need was greatest. And so the early iSoo's saw the growth of criminal investigation departments in the police systems of great metropolises, such as Paris and London. In Paris it was the Surete; in London, the Bow Street Runners, followed by Scotland Yard. The men who made up these organizations were the first "detectives," although the term itself was not used until some years later. (According to the Oxford Dictionary the earliest discovered appearance of the word in print occurred in 1843, but it was probably in spoken circulation considerably before that date.)
Lurid "memoirs" of the Bow Street Runners had begun to appear in England as early as 1827, And in 1829 the romantic "autobiography" of Frangois Eugene Vidocq, lately of the Surete, reached the Paris book-stalls. From about 1830, therefore, it was solely a question of time before the first avowedly fictional detective story would be written. The only surprising circumstance is that it was written by an American, for American police methods at the time were notoriously laggard. The explanation almost certainly rests in Poe's lifelong interest in France and the French: an admiration generously reciprocated by that people in later years. (They have finally stopped writing it-'Toe," heaven be thanked!) For, significantly, all Poe's detective tales are laid in Paris and display a remarkable knowledge of the city and its police system. Some chroniclers have gone so far as to suggest that Poe's "lost year," 1832, was spent in France; this, however, can not be accepted without more convincing proof than has yet been discovered. Other critics have ascribed the
verisimilitude of the stories to close familiarity with Vidocq's Memoires—which were also to serve Smile Gaboriau so faithfully a quarter of a century later. That Poe was thoroughly conversant with this work there can be no doubt. The extent of his indebtedness will be discussed later when the sources of his detective fiction are examined in detail.
A question of greater interest at the present point is the human paradox that led Poe—the avowed apostle of the morbid and grotesque—to forsake his tortured fantasies, even briefly, for the cool logic of the detective story.
Poe revealed his inner mind in his writings as have few authors in history. And what a mental chamber of terrors that mind was! Horror piles on horror in his early (and later) tales; blood, unnatural lust, madness, death always death—fill his pages and the "haunted palace" of his brain. Why, then, this sea-change in mid-career, this brief return to temperate realms? Certain events in 1840 had conspired to this end. Poe's periodic jousts with his earthly demons are too well known to need description here. They had at least contributed to his dismissal from the editorship of William Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. This disappointment led to additional falls from grace and, eventually, to complete collapse and delirium. At length Poe awoke from the fever, weak but clearer than he had been in months and in a distinctly "morning after" frame of mind. At this opportune moment came prosy, kindly George Graham with his tender of a new editorship—provided the poet would make certain practical guaranties of behavior. A creature of extremes, Poe's reaction was swift and typical. He would accept Graham's offer and forswear the world of emotion for the sedater climes of reason.
All through Foe's fiction runs his hero—himself. In the earlier tales the hero is a tormented and guilt-driven wretch. Now, by a process of readily understandable rationalization, the puppet reflects the change in the master: he becomes the perfect reasoner, the embodiment of logic, the champion of mind over matter. Instead of bathing insanely in hideous crime, the new protagonist crisply hunts it down. He demonstrates his superiority over ordinary men by scornfully beating them at their own game; by solving with ease the problems which seem to them so baffling. In brief, he is—AUGUSTE DUPIN.
There is assuredly much to be said for Joseph Wood Krutch's brilliant over-simplification: "Poe invented the detective story that he might not go mad."
Men still read them for the same reason to-day.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote only three detective stories: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter."
A fourth tale of Poe's, "The Gold Bug," is often Carelessly miscalled a detective story. It is a fine story, a masterpiece of mystery and even of analysis—but it is not a detective story for the simple reason that every shred of the evidence on which Legrand's brilliant deductions are based is withheld from the reader until after the solution is disclosed! The same objection excludes still another Poe tale, "Thou Art the Man," which, in point of fact, comes much closer structurally to qualifying than "The Gold Bug." But here again it is the concealment of essential evidence—in this case the all-important factor of the bullet which passed through the horse—that rules the story out of court. Judged by any purely literary standards, "Thou Art the Man" is one of Foe's saddest debacles, for reasons which have no place here; but as a startling prognostication of the mechanics of the present-day detective story it is far too little appreciated.** In addition to the determinative point of evidence already referred to—surely the earliest bona-fide employment of the favorite physical-circumstantial clue—it is remarkable for the following "firsts," at least as applies to the modern tale of crime-cum-detection: the first complete if exceedingly awkward use of the least-likely-person theme; the first instance of the scattering of false clues by the real criminal; and the first extortion of confession by means of the psychological third degree (dependent, in turn, on two lesser devices making their earliest de-tectival appearance, ventriloquism and the display of the corpse). A correspondent, who prefers to remain anonymous, declares: My guess is that if Poe hadn't written the three great masterpieces, later-day critics would be doing handsprings over 'Thou Art the Man' as an amaz ing and trail-blazing tour de force.", But for Poe's single slip in withholding the vitally conclusive point of evidence —coupled with the tale's unfortunate narrative style— this might still be the case. Detective story or not, it is worth the collateral attention of all serious students of the form equally with the more familiar yarn of Captain Kidd's cipher and the shiny scarabseus.
Before leaving this brief consideration of Poe's more incidental contributions, it is not without some chronological importance to note that virtually all his secondary ratiocinative efforts, including the two tales just mentioned and his analytical treatises on Barnaby Rudge and cryptography, were written during approximately the same years as were occupied by "The Rue Morgue," "Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter." Only the essay on Maelzel's Chess Player belongs to another, and earlier, period.
Poe's three detective tales proper are remarkable in many respects. Not their least extraordinary feature is the almost uncanny fashion in which these three early attempts, totalling only a few thousand words, established once and for all the mold and pattern for the thousands upon thousands of works of police fiction which have followed. The first tale exemplified, loosely, the physical type of the detective story. In the second, Poe reverted to the opposite extreme of the purely mental. Finding this (presumably) equally unsatisfactory, the artist in him led, inescapably, in the third story to the balanced type. Thus, swiftly, and in the brief compass of only three slight narratives, he foretold the entire evolution of the detective romance as a literary form. The types may be,
 

** So little is it known, in fact, that when an almost identical central
device was employed in a short story a few years ago by the-young men who write the excellent ELLERY QUEEN adventures, the resemblance went unnoticed by all reviewers, some of whom praised the ingenuity of the device, and by several thousand readers. It was even, the present writer is reliably assured, unsuspected by the authors themselves until one of them picked up Poe's tale for the first time several months later! The best proof of the anecdote, if any is needed, is that it would remain still a secret to-day save for this gratuitous and good-natured revelation by the Messrs. Queen. The little episode is hereby presented, with compliments, to Vincent Starrett, to add to his collection of unconscious or "psychic" plagiaries.




Chapter 1 Page 3

 

Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942     Layout © R.D. Collins
Howard Haycraft

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