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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 1 Page 3

Time 1841 - Place America

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 and of course constantly are, varied and combined, but the essential outline remains unchanged to-day.
Equally prophetic and embracing were. Foe's contributions to the internal structure of the genre. In the very first tale he proceeded to lay down the two great concepts upon which all fictional detection worth the name has been based: (i) That the solvability of a case varies in proportion to its outre character. (2) The famous dictum-by-inference (as best phrased by Dorothy Sayers) that "when you have eliminated all the impossibilities, then, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," which has been relied on and often re-stated by all the better sleuths in the decades that have followed. As for the almost infinite minutiae, time-hallowed to-day, which Poe created virtually with a single stroke of the pen, only a suggestive catalogue need be given. The transcendent and eccentric detective; the admiring and slightly stupid foil; the well-intentioned blundering and unimaginativeness of the official guardians of the law; the locked-room convention; the pointing finger of unjust suspicion; the solution by surprise; deduction by putting one's self in another's position (now called psychology); concealment by means of the ultra-obvious; the staged ruse to force the culprit's hand; even the expansive and condescending explanation when the chase is done: all these sprang full-panoplied from the buzzing brain and lofty brow of the Philadelphia editor. In fact, it is not too much to say—except, possibly, for the influence of latter-day science—that nothing really primary has been added either to the framework of the detective story or to its internals since Poe completed his trilogy. Manners, styles, specific devices may change—but the great principles remain where Poe laid them down and left them. Unlike Boy Blue's toys, however, they gather no dust!
As Philip Van Doren Stern has well said: "Like printing, the detective story has been improved upon only in a mechanical way since it was first invented; as artistic products, Gutenberg's Bible and Poe's 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' have never been surpassed."

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue," chronologically the first of Poe's detective stories, was called in the original draft "The Murders in the Rue Trianon Bas," but, happily the more "suggestive" title (to quote a contemporary writer) was substituted before publication. The circumstance must surely rank high among the magnificent afterthoughts of literature. (How the original manuscript was preserved by chance and rescued for posterity almost half a century after it was written is one of the fascinating and oft-told legends of American bib-liophily, which, however, can not occupy us here. It has been related in print by Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach and others.) "The Rue Morgue" made three principal appearances in type in its author's lifetime. First, in Graham's for April, 1841. Second, as the only number of a still-born cheap-leaflet series of The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe (1843) which has become one of the greatest rarities of Americana-collecting: published at twelve and one-half cents, copies have sold in recent years for as much as twenty-five thousand dollars. And third, in the 1845 Tales, edited by Evert A. Duyckinck. It was also included, of course, in the "Griswold Edition" of the Collected Works, published in 1850. In addition to these American publications, at least three unauthorized French translations of the tale are known to have appeared in the 1840's.* In an era of international literary freebooting, Poe neither received nor expected any remuneration for them. It may be doubted, in fact, that the world's first detective story ever brought its author a penny in direct financial return—for Poe was the salaried editor of Graham's when "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" first appeared; the 1843 leaflet and the 1845 Tales alike were failures;! and Israfel was no more when the Griswold collection was issued. Ironically, in the years since Poe's death, the tale has been reprinted with a frequency which, under modern royalty and copyright engagements, would have netted the ill-fed poet a sizable fortune from this single effort; to say nothing of the untold millions which have accrued to his imitators and followers.
These reprints, however, have served to make the paragraphs of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" thrice-familiar to every school-boy. The story opens with a brilliant but to-day rather outmoded essay on the philosophy of analysis. 
* For an accurate account of this highly involved and usually misunderstood business, see C. P. Cambiaire, The Influence of Edgar Allan Poe in France (New York, G, E. Stechert & Co., 1,927).
f It would indeed have made little difference to Poe in any immediate financial sense had they been successful. The terms between the author and his publishers virtually pass belief. There is preserved a singularly pathetic letter dated August 13, 1841, from Poe to the Messrs. Lea and Blanchard, proposing (unfruitfully) a volume of tales to include the recent "Rue Morgue," in which he says: "I should be glad to accept the terms you allowed me before—that is—you receive all profits, and allow me twenty copies for distribution to friends"!

 

At length the author introduces his hero, the eccentric and impoverished Chevalier, DUPIN, and his anonymous companion and chronicler, the first of a thousand wondering Watsons. We join in their home-life, if their curious insistence on turning day into night may be designated by so domestic a term, and marvel dutifully with the narrator at DUPIN'S powers of deduction. Finally and belatedly, Plot raises its head. A hundred years of imitation have rendered the remainder of the story so much formula: the preliminary account of the crime; the visit to the scene; DUPIN'S satisfaction with what he finds, his companion's blank mystification; the methodical stupidity of the official police; the denouement, arranged by the detective; the inevitable explanation.
Made trite by numberless repetitions, it is yet singularly satisfying.
The reasons why "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is classified as belonging to the physical school of detective story writing may not at once be clear—for the proportions of plot and deduction seem roughly equal in the narrative. Reader, try a simple test for yourself. Without looking at the text, attempt to recall the story, which in all probability you haven't read since school-days. What details stand out most vividly in your mind? The chances are ten to one you will form a mental picture of the murderous ape clutching his victim by the hair, or some related gory incident. Now, ask yourself: by what train of reasoning did the detective arrive at his solution? Unless you are a specialist, the same odds prevail that you will not be able to recall. In other words, the story 'is really dominated by sensational physical event—not by detection, excellently as Poe conceived it.
Poe's second detective story was distinctly a roman a clef. In July, 1841, a beautiful young girl named Mary Cecilia Rogers was murdered in New York under particularly involved and baffling circumstances. If contemporary accounts may be credited, the police bungled the investigation miserably. Poe was frankly contemptuous of their efforts, and more than hinted that he wrote "The Mystery of Marie Roget" to expose their ineptitude. For convenience he laid the scene in Paris and put his thoughts into the mouth of DUPIN. The characters were only thinly disguised, however, and in all later publications the story has been printed with footnotes openly identifying the actors, streets, newspapers, and the like with their true American names. Unfortunately, the real crime was never solved (contrary to popular misconception), and we have no means of verifying the soundness of Poe's deductions. The story appeared in three instalments in Snowden's Ladies' Companion (of all places!) for November and December, 1842, and February, 1843, and was republished in the Tales (1845) and the posthumous Works (1850).*
This longest of Poe's three major excursions into detective literature is, unhappily, the least deserving of detailed attention. It might better be called an essay than a story. As an essay, it is an able if tedious exercise in reasoning. As a story, it scarcely exists. It has no life-blood. The characters neither move nor speak. They are
* The Mary Rogers legend has been retold by innumerable later writers, with varying degrees of success, and both the crime and Poe's analysis of it have been the subject of much and usually erroneous speculation. For a really scholarly and reliable account of the whole matter, the interested reader is referred to a study by William Kurtz Wimsatt, Jr., of Yale University: "Poe and the Mystery of Mary Rogers" (Publications of the Modern Language Association, March, 1941).

present only through second-hand newspaper accounts. A good three-quarters of the work is occupied with DUPIN'S (which is to say Foe's) reasoning from the evidence. Only a professional student of analytics or an inveterate devotee of criminology can read it with any degree of unfeigned interest. Applying our simple test again: practically no ordinary reader can relate from memory either the facts of the crime or the steps by which the detective reaches his rather qualified conclusion. This is the hallmark of the too involved, too dry, too mental detective story—and its confession of weakness.
We come now to the last, best, and most interesting historically and bibliographically of Foe's three detective stories.
As the 1840's marked the beginning of the magazine age, so, too, they denoted the crest of an earlier movement in the direction of popular literature; that now forgotten institution, the "gift book" or "literary annual." The gift annual was undeniably commercial and often pretentious, and largely for these reasons it has been slighted by purists. Yet between its gilded calf and morocco covers appeared some of the best work (as well as some, of the worst) of the leading writers- and artists of the day. Its fees were generous for the times- and had the further pleasant effect of coaxing magazine rates upwards to keep pace. And its format, paper, typography, and "embellishments" were in the main far above the era's drab standards of bookmaking.
The American gift annual was customarily published in the autumn months, in advance of the holiday season, and was dated for the following year. It is important to understand this circumstance, because one of the most baseless errors of contemporary bibliography has grown up around failure to remember it: the habit, even among eminent authorities, of assigning the initial publication of Poe's finest detective story to Britain rather than America. (Just why certain American bibliophiles should take the apparent pleasure in the supposed occurrence that some of them have displayed—while not strictly pertinent to the present examination—is a puzzle in itself.) Briefly, the history of the matter is this: The apex of American gift-annual publishing, by common consent of connoisseurs, was reached in The Gift: 1845. The product of the Philadelphia house of Carey and Hart, this truly handsome volume numbered among, its contributors of prose-and poetry such luminaries of the era as Longfellow and Emerson (two poems each), Charles Fenno Hoffman, Mrs. Sigourney, N. P. Willis, Joseph C. Neal, H. T. Tuckerman, Mrs. Kirkland and Mrs. Ellet, C. P. Cranch, F. H. Hedge, and others of similar prominence. But, what is of greatest importance, between pages 41 and 61, The Gift's purchasers or recipients could devour (as they presumably chose to do) "The Purloined Letter," by Edgar A. Poe, no stranger to the buyers of Carey and Hart's gold-stamped yearly volumes.
-The misapprehension alluded to has occurred because, at about the same time, solid British heads-of-household were perusing a sadly abbreviated version of the tale in that staunch parent of all penny-weeklies, Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, in its issue for November 30, .1844. This condensation was preceded by an explanatory paragraph so commonly or wilfully!—overlooked to-day as to warrant verbatim quotation here:



Chapter 1 Page 4

 

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

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