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Detective Fiction: The Devil is in the Details

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Ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, starting a new trend in fiction, countless readers have enjoyed stories of unsolved crime. From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to contemporary authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Walter Mosley, detective, or crime fiction, has evolved in technique and style, but can it truly be labeled a genre?

Northrop Frye explained the difficulty of defining genres. He claimed that “the basis of generic distinctions in literature appears to be the radical of presentation” (246-47). For example, Shakespeare’s plays were written for the stage and meant to be spoken in front of an audience. Therefore, his works can easily be classified as belonging to the genre of drama. However, Frye continues, that novels present a unique dilemma because the presentation of the work can either be spoken or read silently which leads Frye to conclude that it is the author’s idealistic intention that should be used to determine genre in prose.

Using this framework as a backdrop towards analyzing detective fiction, the critic should examine the historical and cultural context of the author and apply those findings towards fictional devices employed in each author’s work. After all, writers do not live in a vacuum. They artistically respond to trends and tastes that affect society.

Poe lived in an age which witnessed amazing industrial advancements and unprecedented urban growth. Larger cities required more police to handle the increasing crime rate. Newspaper reports of gruesome murders undoubtedly, just like today, sold copies. Unsolved crimes generated concern, fascination and frustration with police departments lacking modern forensic methods.

Poe introduced the concept of ratiocination into his fiction, empowering everyday citizens to help police solve mysteries that were seemingly unexplainable as in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” After all, Poe and his generation were still products of the Age of Enlightenment which valued rationalism and logical thinking. The potentials of calculated reasoning still reigned supreme and were available to all men created equal who possessed the will and curiosity to fully exercise their mental abilities.

C. Auguste Dupin, the main character in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” is motivated by justice. His unwillingness to accept the conviction of a man found guilty without any substantial evidence inspires him to become involved and pursue the matter simply to right a wrong. Philosophically speaking, Dupin is the embodied antithesis of Schopenhauer’s proclamation that mankind is incurably absurd and has governed the world with an irrational will (Kolakowski 1014). Men like Dupin exemplify reason over irrationality and hasty condemnations by the authorities. His sentiments are summarized at the end of the story when the Prefect of Police criticizes his involvement in the case:

“‘Let him talk,’ said Dupin, who had not thought it necessary to reply. ‘Let him discourse; it will ease his conscience, I am satisfied with having defeated him in his own castle. Nevertheless, that he failed in the solution of this mystery, is by no means that matter for wonder which he supposes it; for, in truth, our friend the Prefect is somewhat too cunning to be profound.’” (Literature Network)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, advanced the form of detective fiction through manipulation of plot and character development. Doyle’s background as a physician clearly shaped his style and many devices that he used relied upon conventional, and unconventional, techniques. Holmes enhanced ratiocination with forensics as in The Hound of the Baskervilles when he observed clues in an anonymous letter, using detailed observation of paper cuts and the traces of perfume upon it. Later on, the dog used by the scoundrel Stapleton was bathed in phosphorous to give it a hellish appearance in an attempt to attribute the premeditated murder of Sir Henry to an ancient curse against the family members.

About John H. Byk