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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Poe, Founder of Detective Fiction, Was Real Mystery

Since the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library is featuring mysteries this month, I thought it would be appropriate to bring to your attention four new books about Edgar Allan Poe, the founding father of detective fiction.

Poe by James M. Hutchisson (University Press of Mississippi, 2005).

James Hutchisson, a professor of American literature at The Citadel, has written a brief and clearly written account of Poe's life and major works, intended for the general reader.

By the tender age of 3, Poe was the orphan of a mother who was an accomplished actress and a father who was gifted more at drinking than acting. He was taken in, but never adopted, by a prosperous man of business by the name of Allan, who did not understand Poe's unflagging attachment to literary pursuits.

Poe and Allan fell out irrevocably over the poet's gambling debts, accrued while a freshman at the newly founded University of Virginia. After his college career had ended in disgrace, Poe went on to brief stints in the Army and, as hard as it may be for us to imagine, at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

However, Poe chose to drop out of the military and to pursue a literary career instead. Hutchisson downplays Poe's posthumous reputation as a habitual drunkard, though he admits that the poet couldn't hold his liquor and binge-drank to forget the many sorrows in his life.

Hutchisson stresses Poe's theoretical contributions to American letters in the poet's astute literary criticism. In addition, he connects the morbidity of Poe's tales and poems to the 19th-century "cult of death," where mourning was an art in itself, and to the sad fact that all of Poe's loved ones died at tragically young ages.

The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl (Random House, 2006).

Another author intent on rehabilitating Poe's image is Matthew Pearl, the author of the best-selling novel The Dante Club.

While he is at it, he proposes a possible solution to the great mystery of Poe's death.

Poe died in Baltimore in 1849. He had been found in a distressing condition in a saloon that was a polling place for the local election held that day. Normally a sharp dresser, he appeared to be wearing someone else's ragged garments. Poe had been recently engaged to a wealthy lady in Richmond, so why was he in Baltimore? And why did he repeat the name of a local building contractor on his deathbed?

Pearl presents a solution to these mysteries based on amazingly thorough research.

His novel transforms itself into a Poe tale in itself, complete with a French detective, a stolid narrator and a doppelganger.

Throw in a little swordplay in the spirit of Alexander Dumas, and you have superb historical entertainment.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales by Edgar Allan Poe (Modern Library, 2006).

Pearl also has edited this new collection of Poe's three tales, featuring his analytical detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Included is Poe's masterpiece, The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

In these stories, Poe invents the modern detective story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was obviously in his debt. Like Sherlock Holmes, Poe's detective, Dupin, is an analytical genius, complete with a meerschaum pipe. Like Dr. Watson, Poe's narrator is likable, though obtuse, and the police are thickheaded to a fault.

All modern detectives, from Miss Marple to Monk, are offspring of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. By using their "little gray cells,"as Agatha Christie's Poirot describes it, they use inductive logic to solve their cases from empirical evidence. Like Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, it is not even necessary for them to leave the comfort of their often decadently comfortable apartments to reach their conclusions.

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins, 2006).

Like Matthew Pearl, Bayard has also written a literary mystery about Poe. Bayard's book is the more traditional mystery of the two.

It is a fast-moving story that has the young cadet Poe acting as a secret agent for a retired New York police detective, who has been hired by the superintendent of West Point to solve the murder of one of Poe's fellow cadets.

The best thing about this story for me is to encounter for the first time the young Poe, who must have been a fascinating person and unlikely student at West Point.

By this time, Poe had already published two volumes of verse, containing some of his most revered lyrics, such as "Tamerlane" and "To Helen," including its lines about the "glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome."

To help the Library celebrate Mystery Month, Vanderburgh County Prosecutor Stan Levco will share some of his favorite cases at Central Library Wednesday at noon.

Don't miss this entertaining talk.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.