“Our Ms. Brooks,” mystery novel afficionado and SGL, writes a weekly blog focusing on titles and authors both new and “seasoned.” As I explored her “Masters and Mistresses” collection, I happened on this tribute to Poe and thought you might enjoy it. Thank you, Marilyn!
(Clicking on Marilyn’s title below will take you to her website and a deep well of material!)
Well, a bit of an apology is in order.
Last December 28th I wrote an appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it I said that “To me, he is the father of the modern mystery story (apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, but that’s my opinion).”
One of my readers wrote last month to suggest that I write an appreciation of Poe. He said that writing a post wouldn’t necessarily mean that I liked Poe, only that Poe shouldn’t be excluded. And Mr. W. R. B., you are right; Poe certainly is a worthy Master.
Of course I had read many of Poe’s stories, as I imagine most people have, either in high school or in college. In my mind Poe was quite old-fashioned, and his stories were not up to the caliber of Doyle’s.
I have just re-read two of Poe’s stories, “The Murder in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” While I still think that Poe’s stories are harder for the modern reader to find engrossing than Doyle’s, I was struck by something unexpected. I had not realized how much Sherlock Holmes owed to Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. The similarities are too numerous to be coincidental; I believe that Doyle read Poe’s works (Doyle was fifty years younger than Poe and was born ten years after Poe’s death) and took several of his devices and plots and made them his own.
First there is the obvious pairing of a brilliant, eccentric detective with a not-as-astute narrator (Auguste Dupin/the unnamed narrator vs. Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson). Of course, this device came to be used by many other authors, including Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot/Captain Arthur Hastings) and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin). In fact, avid mystery readers are familiar with the fact that the vowels in Sherlock Holmes are repeated in their exact order in Nero Wolfe. A very clever homage, in my opinion.
Second is the way each author shows the brilliant reasoning power of his detective. In “Rue Morgue,” Dupin and the narrator are taking a stroll. There has been no conversation between them when Dupin says, “He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes.” After a moment, the narrator realizes that Dupin has exactly followed his thought process since, in fact, he had been thinking that the particular actor was better suited to comedy than tragedy because of his extremely small stature. The narrator insists that the detective explain, which Dupin does, showing how seven steps have enabled him to follow his friend’s thoughts perfectly.
In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” Holmes and Watson have been seated in silence for several hours when Holmes remarks, “So, Watson, you do not propose to invest in South African securities?” Admitting his total astonishment at Holmes’ statement, Watson asks how Holmes came to that conclusion. The detective tells him, showing how in six steps he went from seeing chalk between Watson’s fingers to deducing that Watson had decided against the investment.
And third is the “coincidence” of plot. In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin visits a man suspected of having an incriminating letter he plans to use for blackmail hidden in his apartment. When a shot is heard outside, the shot having been arranged by Dupin as a diversion, the man rushes to the window and Dupin is able to substitute an identical-looking letter and leave with the original.
In the plot of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes tricks his way into Irene Adler’s home to find out where she keeps the photograph of herself and her former lover, the photograph the lover has hired Holmes to find. The detective has arranged for a fake call of “fire” from outside to force Irene to reveal where she has hidden the picture, her most valuable possession.
Even granting that some of Doyle’s writing owes a great deal to Poe, I believe that Doyle comes out ahead. His style is much more natural, his characters more realistic. So, although both men were gifted writers, my vote still goes to Doyle. In my opinion, it’s a case of the student surpassing the teacher.
I’ve always been a reader and, starting with Nancy Drew (my favorite, of course), I became a mystery fan. I think I find mysteries so satisfying because there’s a definite plot to follow, a storyline that has to make sense to be successful. And, of course, there’s always the fun of trying to guess the ending!
My blog, published every Saturday, can be found at: www.marilynsmysteryreads.com.