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Poe Started It All

Public Domain

Today I thought we’d delve into the history of crime fiction, and more specifically, how the U.S. and Europe have been fighting for crime fiction dominance for almost two centuries.

This makes for an interesting topic because crime fiction has seen a repeated pattern since the 19th century, wherein Americans invent or innovate, and then Europeans take that American invention and hone it and expand on it, finding new levels of psychological depth.

In fact, that’s essentially how this whole mystery fiction thing got started. Mystery fiction as we know it today was invented and popularized by an American, Edgar Allen Poe. There were, of course, stories featuring crime before Poe, but it was Poe who came up with the whole “detective using logic and perceptiveness to unravel a mystery” thing. And much of the Western tradition of crime fiction can be traced to a single story, published in 1841, Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—and I won’t spoil the mystery, don’t worry—the story involves a French detective named C. Auguste Dupin, who solves the murder of two women when he finds, at the scene of the crime, a hair that doesn’t appear to be human. With this story and its quirky and perceptive detective, Poe introduced numerous tropes that would go on to dominate crime fiction for the next century.

The brilliant investigator who raises eyebrows with his eccentricities, the use of bumbling policemen as a foil for the detective, the first-person narration by the detective’s sidekick. The story was also the first where the detective announces the shocking solution to the crime, then meticulously explains how he came to his conclusion. Finally, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was the first locked room mystery, a trope that would come to be one of the most relied-upon by crime writers over the next century.

Flash forward to England, decades later, where Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle would take Poe’s invention and run with it. Conan Doyle’s stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, and narrated by Holmes’s colleague Dr. Watson, contain all of the previously mentioned hallmarks of “The Murders in the Rue Morge” and Poe’s other stories featuring Auguste Dupin. But the Holmes stories would display a depth of psychological complexity and a sense of adventure and playfulness unseen before—and perhaps since. Sherlock Holmes was, and is, the greatest of all literary detectives.

In the ensuing decades, the Brits—and especially English women—would continue to dominate the mystery genre, culminating in what is called the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction.” During the 1920s, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and others would perfect Edgar Allen Poe’s style of drawing-room mystery, writing novels that were always neatly solved and tied up with a pretty bow by book’s end.

But, across the pond, another storm of innovation was brewing. A former Pinkerton detective in Montana had come up with a new way to tell crime stories. Dashiell Hammett would change the game forever with his messy, genre-exploding narratives and his hard-drinking detectives, Sam Spade and The Continental Op. 

Join me in a few days, when I’ll discuss the birth of American noir fiction, and discuss how that genre was once again molded and perfected by the French, the English, and the Scandinavians.