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The Captivating Tales of Ratiocination

Much critical opinion set detective fiction stories as being pure entertainment. In recent decades thou, reviews begun to shift toward a more serious consideration of these tales following the pace of the ever increasing demand of such literary genre. Movies based on crime stories that relay on deductive reasoning, adventure, imaginative plots destined to disrupt the monotony of civilized life offering a mildly titillating sensation are much appreciated and in high demand. Detective stories are perceived to open free explorations of the attitudes characteristic of the times and morals of the ages when action is taking place while crime is presented as a symptom of personal evil rather than a social injustice.

This paper will discuss Edgar Allan Poe’s as an inventor of detective fiction and will look into his influence among detective stories writers. An interesting influence developed in the nineteenth and twentieth century literary works. English Literature gained something from America and the other way around. The appearance of the first detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe’s, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" had a huge influence upon writers like Arthur Conan Doyle who created the famous Sherlock Holmes, or Agatha Christie who enchanted millions of readers with the  reasoning deductive power and peculiarities of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.


“The Purloined Letter” of Edgar A. Poe had an obvious and recognized influence upon A. C. Doyle. He is the author of “The Adventure of the Second Stain” - a detective story similar in plot and construction with the one Poe wrote. In fact, translated in French by Charles Baudelaire, Poe’s novels reached Romanian writers like Mihai Eminescu and Ion Luca Caragiale. They translated some of Poe’s tales from French to Romanian. “A Lost Letter” by I. L. Caragiale seemed to be inspired by Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”. Literary influences across the Atlantic are building a cultural bridge. Sir Conon Doyle’s novel “The Lost World” concerning an expedition in the Amazon basin of South America where prehistoric animals still survive, its title and plot, was reused by Michael Crichton in his novel “The Lost World”, a sequel to the movie Jurassic Park. The film adaptation is entitled:  “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”. In a similar manner, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle found himself fascinated by Edgar Allan Poe’s novels.


According to Doyle (1902: p.vi) “Edgar Allan Poe, “who, in his carelessly prodigal fashion, threw out the seeds from which so many of our present forms of literature have sprung, was the father of the detective tale, and covered its limits so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own. For the secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero. Everything else is outside the picture and weakens the effect. The problem and its solution must form the theme, and the character-drawing be limited and subordinate. On this narrow path the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him. He is happy if he ever finds the means of breaking away and striking out on some little side-track of his own.”


Many of Poe’s admirers wonder where was coming from his volcanic energy and inspiration. Trying to follow his biography we can find some clues.  


Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809.  First years of his life he spent in Boston. His parents were actors but his start in the artistic world was interrupted when his parents died. He was adopted by a rich tobacco merchant, John Allan, whose surname he took for his middle name. Suddenly, after his first years in a poor family he found himself in luxury. He was educated at the University of Virginia where, for a short while, he proved a brilliant record only to drop out falling into gambling, debt and, finally, he abandoned his adoptive father as well. At this point in his life he acquired the manners of a gentlemen, good taste and looks of a young man of fine bearing. But he had no income, no friends and no means of earning a living.


He moved to Boston where he published a volume but failed to win either fame or money. The consequence was that he enlisted in the army under an assumed name and served for about two years. We have little information about his two years in the army. His foster father helped him to become a West Point student but, again, after a short while and signs of great potential, he disappointed any expectations. Poe was expelled from the military academy. Trying in vain to obtain a political office we find him in Baltimore as a journalist with a precarious living. 


His literary career began in 1833 when his "Manuscript Found in a Bottle" won for him a prize offered by a weekly newspaper and brought him the employment at the Southern Literary Messenger. Poe’s literary works were published by the Messenger and he seemed to be building an international fame as a writer.


Unfortunately it didn’t take much for him to dive into quarrels. Friends and colleagues were left behind and, again, he started his struggle for survival. He moved from city to city, got employed as a journalist, started all sort of projects but never finished. While in New York his wife died of tuberculosis and from now on his life turned towards a bitter finish. It is considered that Poe's most widely known work, "The Raven," was written with the grief and feelings of despair he had after losing his wife. He was fundamentally romantic and the shadows of the Gothic style were close to him. When accused of imitating certain German romantics; as we read in Borges (1971: 12), he replied: "Terror is not of Germany, but of the soul." Poe denied the value of inspiration and thought that esthetic creativity comes from pure intelligence. E.A. Poe’s idea about his poetic aim was solely “the creation of beauty.”

Edgar Allan Poe applied to his tales the same technique that he used in his verse; he believed that everything should be written with the last line in mind. One can consider that his tales are divided into two categories that intermingle: those of terror and those of intellect.


Poe wrote more than sixty tales that may be classified as tales of the supernatural, like “The Fall of the House of Usher” recognized as a masterpiece of American gothic literature. Tales of conscience, like “William Wilson” in what he described his English school and the fantastic tale of William Wilson who dies on killing his double, or alter ego, a remarkable forerunner tale of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” written by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevens.


 The other two categories are: tales of pseudo−science and tales of analysis or ratiocination. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the first detective story in English literature. It was followed by other detective stories or, as Poe called them, ‘‘tales of ratiocination.’’ He created the Dupin character before the word detective had been coined. In 1838, Boston got the U.S.'s first police force—but the next one was formed in 1845, in New York City. As we can read in “A History of American Literature” by Reuben Post Halleck (2002 Blackmask Online) p.137 Poe wrote about his short stories and his style: “A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents,— he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the out bringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre−established design.”


Following Poe’s idea about the methodology of constructing a tale, we discover that in “The Purloined Letter” the first line introduce us into the subject and its atmosphere. It is a phrase in Latin from the Roman philosopher Seneca who was a private tutor of emperor Nero: “Nil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio”, Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than too much cleverness. Published after  “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" as part of the series of novels of ratiocination, in “The Purloined Letter” we found ourselves in the middle of the atmosphere created by previous stories and intrigued by this defying quote that promise a true challenge for mind and spirit. Sometimes people think that their life experience, what they know and do is the right way to do it because it is what the masses would think or do. But in most cases it is better to be different from the mass, especially to think differently, to achieve things undone before. For this reason, Poe’s choice for Seneca’s quote is most appropriate to introduce us in a story that praises wittiness and intelligence.


It is clear from the beginning that The Purloined Letter is a sequel to previous detective stories since the narrator is describing himself as contemplating the events that took place in the other two when Monsieur G. appears again with a new task. The roles of the characters are: the ruthless criminal (villain), a not so talented policeman and, in the middle, a brilliant detective and his friend.  This is basically the plot of every detective story. It might seem obvious to us now, but it wasn't in 1844 – 1845 especially because city police forces were not existing or just appearing.


“The Purloined Letter” is written, as the other two before, at the first person. It is an encounter of the events as the narrator observes and understands them. The problem presented by Monsieur G--, the Prefect of the Parisian police to Auguste Dupin, the amateur but brilliant detective, will find its solution applying a recipe based on reason and analysis. From the very beginning we are assured that, this time, it’s not a short story about a murder , "Nothing more in the assassination way” as Dupin expresses his hopes but something else, something different, simple and “excessively odd” enough for the Prefect to tell Dupin about it. Indeed it was a matter of finding a stolen letter that G tried in vain to find it no matter how thoroughly he searched. Dupin is a French amateur detective who likes smoking, sitting in the dark, reading and dislike stupidity. Knowing this about our main character we expect from him to delight us with his cleverness.


A novelty of the times in American and English society is the usage of microscope to discover concealed things; the microscope representing involvement of science, of new techniques in police activities. For Sherlock Holmes, A. C. Doyle’ character, the magnifier glass is used for the same purpose.


For both of them, a very important principle arose as a consequence of their mental exercise: the best hiding place of an object is to place it where nobody notices it: in plain view.  Here is how Sherlock sums it up: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”


In both detective stories the honor of a lady is in danger if the stolen letter is made public. If in “The Purloined Letter” we may think that the lady in question is the Queen herself, in “The Adventure of the Second Stain” it is a Lady. The highest danger comes from a possible diplomatic emergency because of the missing letter. The epistle, stolen by Lady Hilda, wife of the minister entrusted with the letter is to be given in exchange for the personal one. It seems that political transformations in Europe made it necessary for Sir Doyle to use the element of geopolitical issue as we discovered that detective stories are a sort of social fresco as well. 


The language used by both characters is direct, energetic, clear, and adequate to the occasion. Subject is described in the same manner with no unnecessary linguistic ornament. The attractiveness effect is coming from the thrilling combination of the romantic level of the plot with the analytic reasoning power. In the end, both characters, Dupin and Holmes, prove to protect the lady concerned. Holmes does not reveal Lady Hilda‘s secret to the prime-minister who was enquiring about the miraculous finding of the letter saying “we have our diplomatic secrets”.


Dupin is giving a more profound, moral judgment of the situation and people involved. If we think that Poe started the story having in mind the ending and selected for the beginning a sentence to achieve the pre-established effect, as he described his style of writing, we understand that “The Purloined Letter” is not just about deductive reasoning, police work, a lady in distress and a friend to witness and write about the adventure of them all. First we learn about wisdom. Only detective Dupin, who is looking for the truth is able to find it, because he does not underestimate the gifts of his enemy. He does not think of himself to be a wise man but he thinks himself to be clever. And this is a gift which is sometimes more important than being wise. In the end, when we judge the characters we learn some more from Dupin. For example, the biblical “eye for an eye” is explained. “I act as a partisan of the lady concerned. For eighteen months the Minister has had her in his power. She has now him in hers; since, being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, he will proceed with his exactions as if it was”. He has no consideration for the one who receives just measure for his acts and encourage us to think the same: “it is far easier to get up than to come down. In the present instance I have no sympathy --at least no pity --for him who descends. He is the monstrum horrendum, an unprincipled man of genius.” It is not moral to still, blackmail and keep somebody in fear but, to prevail, we should not forget about the qualities of the opponent and give proper respect for that: “--it did not seem altogether right to leave the interior blank --that would have been insulting. D--, at Vienna once, did me an evil turn, which I told him, quite good-humoredly, that I should remember. So, as I knew he would feel some curiosity in regard to the identity of the person who had outwitted him, I thought it’s a pity not to give him a clue. --.”


In the literary world Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of ratiocination established some of the conventions of crime fiction. ” It is Poe’s unusual combination of realism, deductive reasoning and romantic materials that secured a world−wide enthusiasm for of his detective stories between writers and readers alike.


Editor: Kyenila Taylor


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