Saturday, August 27, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter from Poe: Poetry and Tales. New York: The Library of America, 1984.

(These stories were originally published from 1841-1844.)

I may have mentioned a time or two on this blog that I love Edgar Allan Poe. One of my favorite spots at The University of Virginia is the Edgar Allan Poe room (#13 on the West Range), which is supposedly the dorm room he occupied while a student there. It's glassed off for exhibit, and no one resides in it, except the stuffed raven I love.

I know there are many contemporary critics who love to knock Poe, but I choose to ignore them. I was hooked on him from the moment my sister Forsyth received some over-sized, illustrated "children's classic" version of The Gold-Bug as a gift. I'd received Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, and when I was done with that, despite having loved it, I read Forsyth's book and was horribly jealous (greedy child that I was) that it wasn't mine as well.

All that being said, I've not read everything Poe ever wrote, so I was very happy when the Connecticut mystery book club chose to read three of his stories, two of which I'd read and one of which I'd not. Why it is that of the three C. Auguste Dupin detective stories, I'd read the first,The Murders at the Rue Morgue and the third, The Purloined Letter, but not the second, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, is a mystery in and of itself. Perhaps Dupin would disdain me for chalking it up to bizarre high school and college curricula, coming up with some far more rational explanation, but if I chalk it up to English courses, I can then confidently say it's been about thirty years since I read the two.

That may explain why my brain was quite fuzzy on the details. What I remembered about The Murders in the Rue Morgue was that one of the victims was stuffed up a chimney. That's it, all I seem to have remembered. How I could possibly have forgotten the orangutan ("Ourang-Outang") is completely beyond me, but here's something weird about the way the brain works. I could have sworn that an orangutan features somewhere in a Sherlock Holmes story (I first read Arthur Conan Doyle about the same time I first read Poe). I've reread quite a bit of Sherlock Holmes in the past ten years or so and have yet to encounter an orangutan. Did I completely confuse the two? (Someone in the know, please let me know.)

Then again, the fact that I may have confused Dupin and Holmes leads me to the main point I want to make about these stories, which is that I find, now that I've been reading so many different mystery and detective stories, that the early ones, like those of Poe and Conan Doyle, credited with being the Founding Fathers of the genre, tend to be very matter-of-fact stories meant to highlight the genius of their detectives. Typically, these genius detectives are juxtaposed with earnest, but rather incompetent, policemen. Unlike contemporary authors of the genre who, yes, have genius detectives, but who also might have a setting that features as a character with a psychology almost as complicated as its human characters (Ian Rankin); or whose crime solver's story is so detailed and interesting that the mystery she's solving is almost unimportant (Jacqueline Winspear); or who may be using the genre as a means to express true literary talent (Tana French); here, what's important are the facts, the puzzle presented, and the amazing detective who's smart enough to see what most can't. He spots all the "clews" (when did a "clew" become a "clue"?) no one else has noticed. What the reader most wants to do is to outwit the detective, to pick up on all the clews, and to solve the puzzle just before he does. This reader rarely manages to do so.

I found this matter-of-fact writing style interesting coming from Poe, because I tend to think of his writing as flowery, especially since what I've read most recently of his is his collected poems. Not much poetry is in evidence here, which verifies my claims that Poe was a genius. He could write breath-taking poetry when he so desired, but when plot and puzzle-solving were the important components, he chose to be a little more pedestrian, which is not to say that he was dull or unimaginative, just, well ... prosaic. He may have left behind the flowery language, but he certainly didn't leave behind his own philosophizing, some of which left me with my own, ever-so-flowery response of "huh"? (For a prime example of this, see the beginning of The Murders in the Rue Morgue when Poe presents his theories about the analytical mind.) It's best to read these parts quickly, get through the plot, and then to reread them more slowly for real understanding. It's almost as though reading the story trains the brain to think the way Poe did.

All three of these tales are great fun in an "old-fashioned detective story" way, but of the three, although The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is very interesting in having been based on a true event that occurred in New York City and also includes my favorite quote from the three stories:

'And what are we to think,' I asked, 'of the article in Le Soleil?'

'That it is a pity its inditer was not born a parrot -- in which case he would have been the most illustrious parrot of his race. He has merely repeated the individual items of the already published opinion...' (p. 533)

(have you ever read a better example of a wonderfully disdainful detective?), my favorite, which you can probably tell by the number of times I've mentioned it, is The Murders in the Rue Morgue. What I love about it is that it's so absolutely improbable, absurd really. And yet, while reading it, it all makes perfect, logical sense. (In that regard, it reminds me of one of G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories.) That, in my book, is what good detective fiction is all about. Now, enough writing. I've got this whole collection of Poe stories to read and a hurricane supposedly on its way. What better weather for reading Poe than that?


litlove said...

I love Edgar Allen Poe! although in many ways I shouldn't, as he is the king of claustrophobic situations and I can't understand why that should appeal. His imagination is amazing and monstrous, though, and it's always exciting to be around literary concepts when they're being thought up for the first time. Hope your mystery group has a very interesting discussion!

Susan said...

Not only is this a fabulous post, Emily, on Poe, but it also reminds me of why I should read more of him. Long ago I read the Murders of Rue Morgue (for a history of the mystery university course) and I recall really enjoying it, though can't remember anything else. I did grow up reading and loving Sherlock Holmes, and I could swear that in one of his stories there is an orangutan also!!! I like how you say that these early detectives - and Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot would follow in this line - prize the intelligence of the detective over everything, that it is almost a game for the mind to solve the mystery. You're so right when you say that nowadays the setting can play as much a role, and that while we still have lone detectives against the world (since this is the archetype of the detective, really), that sense of brilliance of the mind has changed in modern detective fiction. I'm going to have to think about this some more!

If you haven't read The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, do - it's along these lines that you and I are talking about. A brilliant mystery, in my top 10 of the year. and in a funny way, rests entirely on the shoulders of the detective to solve.

Now I have to see what Poe I own and check out Murders at the Rue Morgue again!!!

Carl V. Anderson said...

I have little use for anyone who talks down about Poe. His genius is apparent to anyone willing to read his work with an open mind and I tend to think critics who knock it down are doing so simply because of contemporary feelings about the genre that Poe's work now falls in.

I read Murder in the Rue Morgue a few years back for the R.I.P. Challenge and really enjoyed it. Didn't know what to expect from a longer Poe work and was very pleased. Despite my own love for the man's work I still haven't read all of it. I hope to work some Poe in this fall.

Rebecca H. said...

We talked a lot in our discussion about how Holmes and Dupin are quite similar, and people accused Doyle of stealing from Poe, so it's no surprise that you would get the two mixed up! I think you probably haven't been assigned Marie Roget because ... well, it's boring to read. Interesting to think about later, but he does go on and on! And the ending is very strange.