Edgar Allan Poe's "Invention" of Detective Fiction. Classification of the "Dupin Stories" in the History of the Detective Story as a Genre

Term Paper, 2018

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7

Nicole H. (Author)


Table of Contents

1 . Introduction

2 . Detective Fiction
2.1 What is Detective Fiction?
2.2 Origins of Detective Fiction/ Early Ancestors of the Genre

3 . Edgar Allan Poe
3.1 The Murders in the Rue Morgue – Which Typical Elements of Detective Fiction are already Present in Poe’s Dupin Stories?
3.2 What did Poe himself Say about his Detective Stories?

4 . C onclusion: Poe as the Undisputed Father of the Detective Story

5 . Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Poe is he master of all. To him must be ascribed the monstrous progeny of writers on the detection of crime … Each may find some little development on his own, but his main art must trace back to those admirable stories of Monsieur Dupin (Doyle 117-118, quoted from Rachman 25)”. With these words, the British writer Arthur Conan Doyle, author of The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries 1, emphasises the importance of Edgar Allan Poe, who had influenced not only his own work but also the whole genre of detective fiction (cf. Rachman 25).

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most famous American authors, who is especially famous for his over seventy short stories. He was a master of suspense and of the macabre and succeeded in many different types of literature such as horror, poetry, criticism, mystery, tales and sketches. Furthermore, many claim him to be the father of the detective story and the question, if he really is, is supposed to be the main topic of this seminar paper. On January 19th, 1809 Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts (cf. Thompson xiii). “Before (…) Edgar was old enough to remember them, both of his parents were dead (Pattee 116)” and the rest of his life was not coined by luck as well. He lived a bleak life which was characterized by his scandalous biography: alcohol, drugs2, financial problems and his marriage with his 13-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm when he was 27 (cf. Thompson xxix ff.). His wife, his “greatest and only stimulus to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life (Thompson xl)3, died “amid surroundings of utter poverty (Pattee 120)” early at the age of 24. His whole lifetime, he was poor and had problems to secure an editorship. For this reason, he even considered giving up writing and and wrote for very low wages (cf. Thompson xxxi). “He was a magazinist, fitting from magazine to magazine, now as editor, now as contributing assistant, now as hack writer and literary adventurer (Pattee 119)”. He ever dreamed of founding his own magazine, but this never happened.

Nowadays, Poe still has a great influence on American and world literature (cf. Thompson xiii). It is a pity that “unlike all the rest of his literary contemporaries, he had never a dollar in his live save with his pen (Pattee 120)”, whereas his works are now studied and enjoyed wherever we read about English. Poe’s death in 1849 may be one of the most bizarre things about his life. Nobody knows exactly what killed him (cf. Thompson xliv-xlv).

This seminar paper investigates the role of Poe in the history of the detective story as a genre. It tries to find out if Poe really is the inventor of detective fiction or if there had been any detective stories prior to his Dupin works. As a first step, chapter 2.1 of this seminar paper introduces to the characteristics of a typical detective story. The following chapter 2.2 is about the current state of research about the origins of detective fiction and appoints compositions that are discussed in scientific productions to be ancestors of the detective genre. The last focus on this thesis is the adaption of the characteristics of a typical detective story (that have been worked out in chapter 2.1) to easily check if Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue is a real detective story. At the end of this seminar paper, the following questions should be answered: Has nobody ever written a detective story before or are there preforms that are related to detective stories? Is Edgar Allan Poe really the inventor of detective fiction?

2. Detective Fiction

2.1 What is Detective Fiction?

“Most critics say that it should present a problem, and that the problem should be solved by a professional or amateur detective through process of deduction (Symons 13). This chapter should not deal more closely with the obvious aspects what a detective story fundamentally is and what the story is about, it should rather single out significant characteristics of detective stories, which make it possible to identify detective fiction clearly.

In their essay Die Detektivgeschichte im 19. und im frühen 20. Jahrhundert, the authors Sven Strasen and Peter Wenzel introduce the conventions of detective fictiction as a genre, and display the following main characteristics of a typical detective story: Detective stories would include a mysterious crime which would not be solvable at first glance. Even the police would be overstrained with the solution of the crime. Due to this, the investigation of an eccentric and highly gifted detective would be needed. The detective would have a sidekick who would as well function as narrator to whom everything must be patiently explained and who would witness and highlight the detective’s powers of detection. During the discovery process, detective and reader would be confronted with false, ambiguous or hidden clues and with innocent suspects. Eventually, there would be a solution of the crime at the end of the story, and clear answers to all the reader’s questions about the sequence of events, the culprit and his motive to commit the crime would be given. Moreover, there would be a surprise effect as the reader wouldn’t have been able to foresee this solution (cf. Strasen 84f.).

2.2 Origins of Detective Fiction/ Early Ancestors of the Genre

Crime is as old as humanity – there has always been an interest in it. One question critics have always asked about is the beginnings of the detective story. Scientists are highly divided on the question when the detective story developed: In his book Bloody Murder, Julian Symons states that there were two theories about the origins of detective fiction. Theor y I stated some historians would “find examples of rational deduction in sources as various as the Bible and Voltaire, and suggest that these were early problems in detection (Symons 27)”. Th eor y II suggests other researchers would claim that “there could be no detective stories until organized police and detective forces existed (Symons 27)”.

First, Theory I should be explained: Proponents of Theory I believe that the roots of detection were in the beginnings of recorded history (cf. Symons 27). According to Symons, Dorothy Sayers, a renowned English crime writer and poet called the first four detective stories as follows: The Tale of Susanna and the Elders 4, The Story of the Priests of Bel 5, The Tale of Rhampsinitus 6 and The Affair of Hercules and Cacus 7. As well for G. R. Thompson, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Purdue University, Indiana, USA, The Murders in the Rue Morgue is only erroneously called the first detective story because there would be “many literary precedents for the method of Poe’s philosophical detective (Thompson 239)”. As one of the earliest and most significant predecessors of the detective story, Thompson designates Voltaire’s Zadig, or Destiny, a work which had been published in the year 1748, before Poe was born (cf. Thompson 239). Symons himself considers that those who search for fragments of detection in the Bible and Herodotus are only looking for puzzles as these stories cannot be referred to as crime fiction (cf. Symons X).

Next, Theory II should be explained: Those who advocate this theory claim that Edgar Allan Poe is father of the detective story (cf. Symons 27, Rachman 17, Buchloh 34) who has started the whole detective tradition when he wrote The Murders in The Rue Morgue in year 1841. Buchloh and Becker suggest all critics of the detective story would confirm Poe created the detective story in year 1841 in practically perfect form (cf. Buchloh 34). Another propagator of this theory is also Ulrich Suerbaum, a German Anglicist. In his book Krimi. Eine Analyse der Gattung he explains that from ancient times up to the 19th century, only a few stories about humans solving crimes existed. There would have existed the common believe that a murder will always come out as god would be the enlightener and avenger who restores the rule of law and order through his discovery of crimes. Consequently, enlightenment, sanction and hence the solving of crimes was not the job of humans. (cf. Suerbaum 30ff) That is why the question about the culprit was irrelevant for readers at that time. Due to Suerbaum, it is obvious that a genre like detective fiction could only emerge as soon as humans were convinced that they were responsible for enlightenment and atonement for their sins (cf. Suerbaum 33). Why did that change?

By reason of a long-term process called secularisation, which took until the 18th century, religion lost cultural and social significance. For example, through abolishing torture, the process sector in Germany lost its last aspects of divine judgment.

Additionally, it is no coincidence that the first modern police stations and detective agencies occurred at around the same time as the first detective stories did8. The detective story and the police result to a large extent from the same requirements: A higher interest in crimes and the growing belief that crime mysteries can be solved through rational and systematical methods. The foundation and establishment of the police in US and Europe led to the full development of the classic detective story.


1 Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes detective story, A study in Scarlet, in 1889.

2 He took laudanum, an opium derivade, in a suicide attempt, but he was so unfamiliar with the drug that he misjudged the size (cf. Thompson xlili).

3 This is what Poe wrote in the second of two known letters to Virginia after Poe had left for a job interview in 1846 (cf. Thompson xl).

4 Found in the bible included in the book of Daniel, Chapter 13

5 Found in the bible included in the book of Daniel, Chapter 14

6 A fictional pharaoh from the ancient Egypt named by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

7 Story from Greek mythology

8 In the early to middle 19th century

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Edgar Allan Poe's "Invention" of Detective Fiction. Classification of the "Dupin Stories" in the History of the Detective Story as a Genre
University of Wuppertal
Seminar Literaturwissenschaft "Edgar Allan Poe"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
edgar, story, history, stories, dupin, classification, fiction, detective, invention, allan, genre
Quote paper
Nicole H. (Author), 2018, Edgar Allan Poe's "Invention" of Detective Fiction. Classification of the "Dupin Stories" in the History of the Detective Story as a Genre, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/471265


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