When discussing the origins of America’s most famous genres, the birth of detective fiction is stated to be one of the most prevalent. While discussing the origins of this prolific genre, some historical names tend to come to mind. Names like Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie usually fill readers’ minds. E.F. Bleiler states that “The modern detective story begins with Edgar Allan Poe” (3). His influence on other writers, and distinct techniques made him, and his pieces like The Raven and The Cask of Amontillado, ones to be admired for centuries to come.
As Poe rose to fame in the literary world, his childhood played an interesting role in his adult life. Only one year after Poe was born, he was left by his father. His mother died only one year after that “…leaving Edgar an orphan in Richmond, Virginia” (Heller 2). These hardships can explain why Poe tended to write in the dark style and tone he did. Throughout Edgar Allan Poe’s short life, some signature writing techniques have intertwined with his dark demeanor, creating eerie and unsettling stories that are enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.
His works have been so successful that some have called him, “The Father of Detective Fiction.”
As Poe wrote his gut-wrenching masterpieces, he managed to inadvertently create techniques and “improv[e] on such elements as he borrowed, but with his remarkable structural sense worked out a viable form that served as a model for thousands of successors” (Bleiler 2).
With these elements, he derived many distinctive and important terms involved in detective fiction.
E.F. Bleiler states again, “Poe added at least seven new elements of overwhelming importance. These are the stooge narrator, the eccentric detective, the complete outsider as detective, the armchair detective, reader participation in a puzzle, ratiocination or precise analytical reasoning, and a calculus of probabilities as a tool for cutting through conflicting evidence” (3). All of these innovative and unique terms play in unison throughout Poe’s pieces, giving the reader new perspectives and points of view. By simply generating new writing perspectives and logical thinking techniques, Poe’s structured writing style is mirrored by new artists each and every day.
Some notable elements discussed by E.F. are the creation of the eccentric narrator, precise analytical reasoning and the armchair detective. These three elements are most important because they are used most abundantly. The eccentric narrator is derived from the idea that the narrator telling the story is unique or unconventional in some sort of way. This is seen all throughout Poe’s pieces, like how odd the encounters with the narrator are in The Cask of Amontillado and The Tell-Tale Heart. While discussing The Tell-Tale Heart, precise analytical reasoning can be seen in reverse as the main character contemplates what he has done, and eventually confesses to murdering someone and hiding his remains under the floorboards.
Although some of the main character’s reasoning was insane, he still used precise analytical reasoning to come to his final conclusion within the story. In summation, this means Poe used a logical writing style to describe the plot and what the narrator was portraying to the reader. The armchair detective is a narrator who examines a mystery, but not in a direct way. Information is either gathered by another character, newspaper, or some other visual format. In The Raven, information is gathered by a raven and conveyed to the lonely lover. This example shows the portrayal of information indirectly through non-human interaction. Another example would be a detective looking at documents or records and coming to a conclusion based solely on written information and no physical contact.
While dark tones and unsettling moods could ultimately sum up Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, his connection of style to both setting and character creation/description is what truly makes him stand out from other detective fiction writers of his time like Agatha Christie. Poe uses the setting and characters as tools to help solidify his storyline and parallel the main focus of the piece. For example, in The Tell-Tale Heart, the fact that such a horrific thing like a dead body is under such an unstable thing like a floorboard, it shows the connection that the narrator’s mind is unstable like a loose floorboard, and there is evil and insanity within him. Bomarito writes, “Aside from a common theoretical basis, there is a psychological intensity that is characteristic of Poe’s writings, especially the tales of horror that comprise his best and best-known works” (2). In Poe’s most famous works, the setting is almost always in parallel to the mood and or tone of the story. In The Cask of Amontillado, the dark nature of the underground tombs directly related to the dark undertones of the storyline. Bomarito continues, “These stories—which include ‘The Black Cat’ (1843) ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ (1846) and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ (1843)” (2) are some of Poe’s best-known works. Another example of Edgar Allan Poe’s dark tone in relation to the main character(s) is the constant recurrence of insanity. In The Raven, the narrator is visited by a raven who eventually drives him mad as he mourns the loss of his lover. The main character in The Tell-Tale Heart also seems to lose grip of his sanity as he claims he “hears the heartbeat” of the man he killed underneath the floorboards. The constant recurrence of insanity and darkness mixed with alcohol and a rough childhood made a rough life for Poe.
Regardless of the odds against him, Poe is considered to be the Father of Detective Fiction by many acclaimed critics. Gerald Strauss writes, “Poe’s “The murders in the rue morgue”–which takes place in Paris, as do his other mystery stories–is the seminal work from which all subsequent detective fiction descends” (1). No matter what source you acquire information from, Edgar Allan Poe is sure to be listed as one of the most influential detective fiction novelists ever. Heller adds, “Poe’s achievements may be measured in terms of what he has contributed to literature and of how his work influenced later culture” (1). James Werner also states, “…the birth of the modern crime-mystery-detective story can be traced back to the 1841 publication of the short story ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue” (2). By simply affecting as many people as he did and does respectively, Edgar Allan Poe is without question considered the father of detective fiction. Having a generational impact is truly something to be admired. By going out and taking risks, he paved the way for younger authors to go out, be bold, and write about how they feel. Influence paired with his elements of importance convey his importance to the genre of detective fiction.
As Poe’s life came to a deteriorating end, his grip on the detective fiction genre will forever hold tight. One can argue that it wasn’t Poe who mended detective fiction, but it was the people of the time. “In contrast to the ‘pure’ detective story, which is written and read in most Western countries, the ‘hardboiled’ detective novel is distinctly and exclusively an American form” (Schopen 3). Poe also could potentially be writing stories of a dark style because he enjoys it, not because of his rough past. Although this is playing the devil’s advocate, it is highly likely that Poe’s childhood led to problems he had in his adult life. The culture of the early 1800s is crucial when talking about Poe’s parents as well. Both of his parents were actors when “actors were not considered cool” (1). His lack of parenting and constant overseeing changes until Allan (his guardian) came, made his life unique, which then translated into his writing style. Poe’s use of techniques is not specifically designed just for detective fiction, but for any writing style as a whole. This is another reason that describes why Poe’s grip is still firm and forever will be in the detective fiction community. James Werner writes again, “[Poe] have entertained countless young readers in the past 150 years, and attracted enormous critical attention” (2). Edgar Allan Poe has shaped detective writing for future generations to come. His influence and intellect were so prevalent that he is admired to this day as students all over the nation, and world, read his pieces.