How the Nineteenth Century Influenced Poe and How Poe Influenced the Development of Detective Fiction and Mysteries.


The first half of the nineteenth century was an expansive and troubled time for America. Territorial gains had increased the size of the country while, at the same time, improvements in transportation seemed to shrink it (Baym 922). Conformity and materialism was on the rise. Calvinism had given way to a more moderate Protestantism—although most writers of the time still found themselves at odds with the dominant religion (Baym 925). Waves of European and Irish immigrants (mostly Catholics) created a sense of alarm amongst many citizens and xenophobia led to the burning of many catholic churches and schools (Baym 927). This time too saw the continuation of some of the most egregious national sins: slavery (of blacks) and genocide (of the eastern Indian tribes) (Baym 928).

In terms of the literary expectations of the period, American writers found themselves in an odd situation. On the one hand, they were taxed with the creation of a new quintessentially American literature. On the other they were expected to follow the styles and norms established in British and classical literature. Indeed, educated Americans were more familiar with European literature and history than with early American writers (Baym 917). In addition to these contradictory expectations, most writers of the time found it necessary to comment upon the fundamental flaws of the society in which they lived.

Early criticism of Poe proposes that Poe did not comment upon his society in his work. In fact, Poe is depicted as having no connection to the world around him (Marchand 28). After the turn of the century, scholars began to realize that Poe was aware of and did actually write about the major issues of the day (Marchand 30). Most of these writings came in essays, letters and critical reviews of his contemporaries’ works. His fiction is more removed from the real world affairs of his times. However, the influences of social mores and political and intellectual ideas can be seen in many of his short stories.

In The Spectacles, Poe makes use of aristocratic society’s rules of behavior to create a humorous story about a young man who is too vain to wear spectacles to correct his poor vision. The hero, and narrator, of the story is a twenty-two year old man named Simpson. He is, by his own assessment, a handsome man (Poe 8: 7). His eyes, though “large and gray” (Poe 8: 7), are weak. He refuses to wear spectacles because, “Being youthful and good-looking, I naturally dislike these” (Poe 8: 7). At the theatre he spies a woman with whom he immediately falls in love. The woman is seated fairly far away from him. Her beauty stuns him, but of course, because of his poor eyesight, he cannot see her clearly.

It turns out that his beloved his sixty years his senior, a fact he does not discover until he has, or so he thinks, married her. Simpson is actually the victim of an elaborate practical joke planned and executed by the lady and his friend. They manage to keep Simpson from seeing the lady close-up in daylight by preventing him from receiving a formal introduction. In that time, it was simply not possible to meet a lady without the intercession of a mutual acquaintance. Although Simpson tries, he can find no one who could, “take the liberty of introducing me through the formality of a morning call” (Poe 8: 18). This social rule is so strongly held that Simpson never even considers simply paying her a formal visit, and this in turn allows the plot of Talbot (Simpson’s friend) and Madame LaLande (his beloved) to go forth.

Poe created satirical works that can be considered the forerunners of science fiction. He uses these types of stories to satirize and criticize the society in which he lived. In “The Adventures of Hans Pfaall” he has Hans abandon is home as a result of changes in society that were unpleasant for Pfaall (and disliked by Poe). Hans criticizes the radicals for keeping people so busy reading about revolutions and keeping up new knowledge and such that they forgot to have their bellows mended (Poe 3: 12). He takes a shot at the press to when he states, “If a fire wanted fanning, it could readily be fanned with a newspaper” (Poe 3: 12). The bulk of the story covers Hans’ description of his flight to the moon in a balloon. By showing Hans solving problems and being successful all by himself, Poe is championing the cause of individualism against democratization. In “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe’s views on society versus the individual are made more obvious. The narrator of this piece is on a long balloon journey and observes that one of their drag-ropes knocked a man overboard. The man was left behind and the narrator rejoices, “that we live in an age so enlightened that no such thing as an individual is supposed to exist” (Poe 3: 104).”Mellonta Tauta” takes place far in the future (2848) and many of the comments the narrator makes are from the point of view of a future citizen and looking back on the past with a critical eye. This story is a blunt satire. The things deemed good far in the future are the things that horrified Poe as he saw society heading in that direction. “Were they so blind as not to perceive that the destruction of a myriad of individuals is only so much positive advantage to the mass” (Poe 3: 105). Poe was very strongly against the movement towards the idea that the good of the many outweighed the good of the few. He was a staunch individualist.

Poe’s greatest mark upon the literary world was his invention of the detective story “with all its major conventions complete” (Baym 1483). Poe actually wrote three detective stories. The first was The Murders in Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, and The Purloined Letter. In creating these stories, Poe was responding to the ongoing scientific debate about the “origins and meaning of the universe” (Frank 170). In the opening of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Poe spends a great deal of time on the nature of reason and analysis. He takes care to distinguish between calculation, analysis and intuition. Intuition, in and of itself, is not credited but is put forth as what truly exceptional analysis looks like (Poe 4: 1). Dupin’s conclusions may seem preternatural, but his method at arriving at them is solidly grounded in observation and logic.

Our first example of Dupin’s method is when he steps into his friend’s (the narrator) mental ruminations with a comment that was perfectly appropriate, even though the narrator had not spoken for some time. Dupin explains how he was able to follow his companion’s thoughts. In doing so he “used the reconstructive models of nineteenth century historical disciplines associated with geology and archeology and later with evolutionary biology” (Frank 171). Although he has eschewed progress elsewhere in his works, Poe has certainly placed himself on the side of reason and analysis, even if that method leads to irreligious ideas.

The legacy of Poe’s detective fiction can be seen most clearly in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and later in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Dupin, Holmes, and Poirot all have ‘sidekicks’ that narrate their stories. These sidekicks are less astute than the detective and so are very often surprised at the solutions arrived at the detectives. It all becomes clear, of course, when the detectives explain their reasoning, which they all do with pleasure. All three detectives talk of using reason and method to arrive at their solutions. All three are in agreement that intuition and guessing are to be avoided.

The first Holmes story was published in 1891, fifty years after Poe’s Dupin made his first appearance in print. There are numerous similarities between the character of Dupin and the character of Holmes. Both are solitary men who prefer to live quietly in either isolation or in the company of one close companion. Doyle describes Holmes as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen” (Doyle 1). Poe describes Dupin as having a “peculiar analytic ability” (Poe 4: 12). In the beginning of  “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson is surprised by Holmes observation that he is back in practice, has been getting wet, and has “clumsy and careless servant girl” (Doyle 2). Dupin surprises his friend in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by speaking to his thought. In the subsequent explanations, both detectives show their reliance on observation and logic to arrive at their conclusions. Holmes as reached his conclusions through the observation of scratches on his friend’s boot, the smell of iodoform, silver nitrate on his forefinger, and a bulge in his top hat (Doyle 2). Dupin carefully traces his friend’s mental conversation by detailing what his friend did, where he looked, and his facial expressions. In both detectives, there is a keen interest in human thought and motivation. Dupin boasts that most men, “wore windows in their bosoms,” (Poe 4: 12). Holmes turns his attention to the study of crime and the challenge of matching wits with criminal minds.

Holmes and Dupin are similar in their abhorrence of theorizing without sufficient data. When Watson asks Holmes what a mysterious letter he has received means, Holmes replies, “I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts” (Doyle 3). Dupin levels this last accusation against the Paris police in regards the murders in Rue Morgue. One of the victims was found on the stones below the window of a 4th story window, but because the windows appeared shut, the police did not consider that Madame fell to her death. “This idea, however simple it may now seem, escaped the police for the same reason that the breadth of the shutters escaped them—because, by the affair of the nails, their perceptions had been hermetically sealed against he possibility of the window having ever been opened at all”  (Poe 4: 45). “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth,” (Doyle) expresses quite well the exploration of the windows by Dupin in “The Murders in Rue Morgue.” Dupin eliminates all possible exits from the rooms and then concludes that egress must have been made through the windows because, however improbable, they are the only means available.

An interesting side note on “The Murders in Rue Morgue” is the use of an orang-outang as the murderer. This points to Poe’s knowledge of and possible support for the idea of evolution as propounded by Darwin. For both, “Man is mammalian, not a deity, perhaps separated from other animals only by a face turned towards the heavens and by the power of speech (Frank 183).

Although it could be stated that Christie’s Poirot was a descendant more of Holmes than of Dupin, there are some similarities between Poirot and Dupin that do not exist for Holmes and Dupin (or Poirot). Dupin and Poirot are both European, not British. Dupin is French and Poirot is Belgium. Both have a friendly nemesis on the police force; one who comes to them for aid and one whose ability to reason is often questioned by the detective. Dupin shows his contempt for G——, the prefect of police by sleeping through his description of the investigation. (Poe 4: 67). Dupin’s commentary on the workings of the Parisian police, that they, “are cunning, but no more,” that there is “no method in their proceedings beyond the method of the moment.”  Poirot is quite often complaining about the lack of method and order in the investigations and theories of the police, and his friend Hastings. He refers to his ‘nemesis,’ Inspector Japp with a certain amount of disparagement,  "Gone down to interview the servants. I showed them all our exhibits. I am disappointed in Japp. He has no method!" (Christie). To Poirot, “a "man of method" was … the highest praise that could be bestowed on any individual” (Christie). Japp and G—— are both inclined to laugh at the evaluations of the problem by Poirot and Dupin even as they continue to turn to them for advice. In the beginning of “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin suggests that the problem facing the police is giving them trouble because it is too simple, too plain, too self-evident (Poe 4: 135). At which, the Prefect merely laughs. When Poirot states that the crime committed on the Orient Express is perfectly natural, M. Bouc flings up his arms in despair (Murder 234). Holmes too drew both respect and skepticism from the police, “He has his own little methods, which are, if he won’t mind my saying so, just a little too theoretical and fantastic, but he has the makings of a detective in him” (Doyle 26).

Certain stylistic choices that Poe made in writing his three detective stories have become almost rules for writing this type of analytical detective fiction. The first choice is in the character of the detective. Since solving the crime is the focus of the work character of the detective cannot be. Dupin’s character and personality are very much in the background of Poe’s story. We know almost nothing about him accept through his analysis of the mysteries presented. Holmes and Poirot are also somewhat two-dimensional characters. Holmes is saddled with an opium addiction but his personal troubles are not important to the story. Poirot is a very colorful character, but there is little depth. As far as can be told, Poirot has no personal problems. All three of these detectives (Dupin, Holmes and Poirot) remain bachelors throughout their fictional lives.

The plot of these stories covers the working out of a solution to a crime, usually murder. In Poe’s stories, the bulk of the story is a presentation of the evidence and then Dupin’s conclusions based on his analysis of that evidence. The last chapters of Christie’s stories are in many ways similar to Poe’s stories. Poirot relates the evidence and takes his assemblage of suspects along his path of reasoning to the solution. In Doyle’s stories as well, Holmes always takes time to explain his reasoning to Watson.

“The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” should certainly eliminate any idea the Poe was not aware of what was going on in the world around him. This story was based entirely on the newspaper accounts of a real murder that occurred in New York. In a letter to J. E. Snodgrass dated June 4, 1842, Poe writes about the story based on the murder, which created a great deal of excitement, and is offering it to him for publication. Poe is obviously quite excited about his work; “I have handled the design in a very singular and entirely novel manner. I imagine a series of nearly exact coincidences occurring in Paris. A young grisette, one Marie Roget, has been murdered under precisely similar circumstances with Mary Rogers. Thus under presence of showing how Dupin (the hero of the Rue Morgue) unraveled the mystery of Marie's assassination, I, in fact, enter into a very rigorous analysis of the real tragedy in New-York” (Letter).

Poe is, to a certain extent, looking to cash in on the tragedy and the attention it received. He is also of the opinion that he has solved the crime, “In fact, I really believe, not only that I have demonstrated the falsity of the idea that the girl was >>not<< the victim of a gang >>as supposed<<, but have indicate! the assassin” (Letter). Poe is also using the story to promote his ideas on reason and analysis. “My main object, however, as you will readily understand, is the analysis of the principles of investigation in cases of like character. Dupin reasons the matter throughout” (Letter).

“The Purloined Letter” sets up a ruse that is adapted by both Doyle and Christie in their work. Dupin is able to recover a stolen letter, one that would cause deep difficulties for a royal personage if revealed, by outsmarting the robber. The robber took the letter in plain sight of the queen because she had left it in the open so as to hide it from a third person in the room. Dupin deduces that the robber would also leave the letter in plain sight, though disguised, rather than hiding it in a safe where the police would surely discover it. He is correct and is able to recover and return the letter, replacing the original with one of his own. The first Holmes story to appear in print, “A Scandal in Bohemia” uses a very similar plot. A young woman has a compromising photograph of the King of Bohemia that she is using to blackmail him. She does not leave the photograph out in the open, like the robber in Dupin’s story, but is caught by a different type of ruse. Holmes stages an incident (several actually) that leads her to believe her house is on fire—Dupin had staged an incident when he was in the robber’s sitting room to get him to look out the window giving Dupin time to secure the letter—and she rushes to retrieve the most valuable thing in her home: the photograph. This was what Holmes expected and so he was able to discover where the photograph had been hid. Unlike “The Purloined Letter,” the lady in the end outwits Holmes. Dupin and Poirot are never outwitted.

 Similar to his detective fiction is “The Gold Bug” which reveals Poe’s intense interest in cryptography. It also shows his racist and pro-slavery views. His depiction of the character of Jupiter is and the relationship of Jupiter and LeGrand shows both his view of Negroes as inferior and the properness of the master-slave relationship. Jupiter’s dialog is written in a heavy dialect, “Is de lef eye of de skull pon de same side as de lef hand of de skull too?” (Poe 5: 27). In this passage both the dialect and the ignorance exhibited by the character are reflections of the general views of held in the south. Jupiter is, generally, well treated by LeGrand, as southern advocates of slavery asserted that most slaves were. Jupiter seems happy to serve his master, as, again, was asserted by the slaveholders of the south. Poe was born and raised in Virginia and carried with him the views on slavery and on the black people that were prominent in his (southern) society.

Poe’s interest in cryptography follows from his interest in the use of reason and logic to solve problems. He issued a challenge in 1839 in Alexander's Weekly Messenger asking people to submit simple substitutions ciphers. It was his contention no one could come up with one that he wouldn’t be able to solve. “We say again deliberately that human ingenuity cannot concoct a cypher which human ingenuity cannot resolve” (Rosenheim 377) was a statement made by Poe. In view of his fascination, it is not surprising that a large portion of “The Gold Bug” is taken up with the working out of a cryptogram. The cipher is shown and the solution to it arrived at through logical steps. Here, as in all of Poe’s works, there is the promotion of reason and logic, even in the face of the horrifying.

Such reason is applied to a truly horrifying event in the story  “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” In this story the narrator starts out by stating that he is going to lay out the facts of what happened so as to squelch the many “unpleasant misrepresentations” (Poe 5: 88). The narrator relates the results of a ‘scientific’ experiment into the effects of mesmerism. His particular interest was in whether mesmerism would have any effect on the dying. To this end he arranges to mesmerize an acquaintance in ill health just before his actual death. The narrator is aware that the experiment is morally questionable as he states that he knew “the steady philosophy of the man too well to apprehend any scruples from him” (Poe 5: 90). Poe juxtaposes the horror of what happens with the calm and deliberate description of events by the narrator. The narrator is aware of the unbelievablity of his tale, he says so directly, but states that it is his “business, however, simply to proceed” (Poe 5: 98). The end of the story, the end of the scientific experiment, is “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putrescence” (Poe 5: 102).

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” sets up a mystery for the reader by stating at the beginning that it would have been a miracle if the case had not excited discussion and that a “garbled or exaggerated account” had “made its way into society” (Poe 5: 88). A different kind of mystery is created in the story, “The Oblong Box.” In this tale the opening dilemma is rather ordinary, why did the narrator’s friend retain three staterooms for four people. He becomes obsessed with solving this little mundane enigma. As the story goes on, and the narrator learns more, the mystery becomes deeper and darker as more odd incidents occur. First the ship is delayed for no apparent reason, the wife of Wyatt (the narrator’s friend) is quite plain, almost ugly rather than the bright and witty beauty that Wyatt had described, an oblong box is delivered to the ship and immediately afterwards, the ship sets sail. The box was delivered to Wyatt’s stateroom, rather than the extra one. When he makes a comment to Wyatt about the box, Wyatt’s reaction convinced the narrator that Wyatt was mad. The narrator then observed that Wyatt’s wife would leave their stateroom and stay in the extra till morning. Then the narrator overhears sounds coming from Wyatt’s stateroom while his wife was absence that he finally ascertained were “occasioned by the artist in prying open the oblong box” (Poe 3: 192). He also overhears sobbing or low moaning coming from the Wyatts’ stateroom early on those mornings. Most modern readers will have, at this point, figured out that this is vampire story. The real Mrs. Wyatt is actually a vampire who must return to her coffin each night. In that assumption, the modern reader would be wrong. The explanation for this dark mystery is actually quite simple. Wyatt had booked passage for his new wife and his sisters but on the morning the ship was to sail, his wife suddenly died. “Frantic with grief,” (Poe 3: 198) Wyatt arranged with the Captain to take the corpse of his wife on the ship as merchandise since prejudice was such that most of the passengers would have refused to set sail with a corpse. Mrs. Wyatt’s maid played the part of Mrs. Wyatt during the day and retired to her own stateroom at night.

Although Poe was a product of his times in terms of his moral beliefs, social ideas and prejudices, he was ahead of his time in his experimentation with new styles of short story writing and new genres of fiction. His influence on writers of his own time was limited, but his influence on the literature that has followed him is quite large.


Works Cited

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  New York: BARTLEBY.COM  (1999)

---, Murder on the Orient Express. New York: Simon & Schuster (1960).

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. New York: Bramhall House (1925).

Frank, Lawrence. “’The Murders in the Rue Morge:’ Edgar Allan Poe’s  Evolutionary Reverie. Nineteenth Century Literature 50.2. 1995: 168-188. JSTOR. North Carolina State University. 29 Nov. 2001. <>

Marchand, Ernest. “Poe as Social Critic.” American Literature 6.1 (1934): 28-43. JSTOR. North Carolina State University. 29 Nov. 2001. <>

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 10 vols. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1904.

---, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe.  The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc. 29 Nov. 2001. <>

Rosenheim, Shawn. “’The King of ‘Secret Readers’’: Edgar Poe, Cryptography and the Origins of the Detective Story.” ELH 56.2 1989: 375-400. JSTOR. North Carolina State University. 29 Nov. 2001.