Watching the Detectives ; as Whodunits Clutter Our Bookshelves, Stage and Screen, Jonathan Myerson Deduces That Modern Literature Owes Much to an Early Master of Murder-Mysteries - Edgar Allan Poe
Myerson, Jonathan, The Independent (London, England)
What does it take to get yourself on a pounds 10 note these days? There seems to be an established pantheon of Victorians whose names became household words and whose faces slipped into our wallets simply because they made us see the world differently. There's Darwin, who upended our understanding of nature and God; Freud, who demanded a rethink on the soul; and Einstein, who rewrote the book on physics.
But who did the same for literature? Who, for better or worse, rewrote the book on books? I nominate Edgar Allan Poe and, like all the best Nobel Prizes, he shares it with Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, who play Florey and Chain to his Fleming.
Now admit it, you weren't expecting young Edgar. But up there with evolution and with psychoanalysis, the form that has had the greatest effect on 20th-century literature is undoubtedly the detective story. These days, we're all watching the detectives, whether we want to or not.
I'm not just talking about the huge boom in detective/murder/ police stories. That's obvious, that's the unstoppable tsunami, but it's genre stuff, it's not what people call High Art. No, I'm talking about how the detective story has shaped the sort of novel that wins Bookers, the sort of film that wins the Palme d'Or, the sort of play that wins Olivier Awards. These works as often as not use the mystery story as a vital engine for its storytelling. There won't be a murder or cop in sight, but there'll be something unknown, some shadowy thing that the hero must discover - and take the audience along for the ride while he does so.
But it wasn't always this way. In fact, in the days before detective stories, it was literally unimaginable. Just look at Act I, Scene 1 of Othello. Iago walks on stage and tells us how angry he is with the Moor, how he's promoted Michael Cassio ahead of him and now Iago intends to work his revenge. From there, the play is simply explication. We know exactly what's going on at every stage - there is no mystery, no thriller, apart from whether Othello will suss it in time.
No one writing this story today would open with the baddie - especially one as consummate as Iago - walking on stage/ screen/ page to tell the audience exactly what he is planning. This is no criticism of Shakespeare. Constructing your story as a mystery was simply not an option in the 16th century. You could say exactly the same of Sophocles, whose Clytemnestra tells the Athenian audience exactly how and when she intends to take an axe to her husband. Or Chaucer's Pardoner, who brazenly forewarns us of the moral outcome of his tale: no mystery, no surprise.
But when Robert Peel established the first professional police force in London in 1829, he created a worldwide interest in the possibilities of detection. Suddenly, there were people employed (for 16 shillings a week) to solve crime. The hit-and-miss days of hue and cry were over; even crime had entered the age of conscious, rational thought. With cases being detected and solved through evidence, the result was an increase in trials. And trials almost always mean one thing: newspaper reports.
When he wasn't being Mr Gothic Horror, Poe made his penny- pinched income by writing for newspapers and magazines. One of the few big successes in his lifetime (long before Roger Corman and Hammer made him what he is today) was cryptography, inviting readers to create their own letter- replacement ciphers and attempt to baffle him.
Maybe as a result, in 1841, in Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine, Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". This was a departure from his usual tales of premature burial and red death into the science of ratiocination: the art of deduction. Without an inkling of the hares he was setting running, he merely described it as "something in a new key".
But what is truly staggering about this story - and why Poe deserves his place in the banknote Olympiad - is how much he got right at the first attempt. …