CliffsNotes on Detective Fiction

CliffsNotes on Detective Fiction

CliffsNotes on Detective Fiction

CliffsNotes on Detective Fiction



- Rules for Writing Detective Fiction

- What is Detective Fiction?

- Critical Commentaries

--- "The Purloined Letter"

--- The Moonstone

--- "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"

--- Whose Body?

--- The Benson Murder Case

--- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

--- What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw

--- The Fashion in Shrouds

--- Black Orchids

--- The List of Adrian Messenger

--- Death and the Joyful Woman

- • Selected Bibliography


Edgar Allan Poe is usually acknowledged as the originator of detective fiction. His was a wide-ranging talent, and he is still renown for his poetry, literary criticism, tales of terror and of science fiction, as well as for his five tales of ratiocination. In these five stories—“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Purloined Letter,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (these three feature M. Auguste Dupin), “Thou Art the Man,” and “The Gold Bug”--Poe is also credited with developing many of the standard features of detective fiction.

For example, M. Auguste Dupin is the forerunner of a long line of fictional detectives who are eccentric and brilliant. His unnamed friend, who is most admiring and certainly less than brilliant, begins the tradition of the chronicler of the famous detective’s exploits; he mediates between reader and detective, presenting the information he has to the reader while allowing the detective to keep information and interpretations to himself. The contempt that both Dupin and his friend have for the police and their methods has also become a standard feature of many detective stories.

Because it was Poe’s first tale of ratiocination, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” introduces more basic features of detective fiction. Among these are three basic motifs: the murder in the locked room; the innocent person to whom motive, access, and other surface evidence point; and the use of an unexpected means to produce the solution. Two aphorisms are also presented for the first time: 1) the truth is what remains after the impossible has been determined--no matter how improbable that truth may seem; and 2) the more apparently difficult and out of the ordinary, the more easily a case can be solved. Finally, the superiority of the detective when measured against the police in inferring possibilities and probabilities and in observing the scene from the inferences, due to the single-mindedness and limited viewpoint of the police, is also introduced in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

“The Mystery of Marie Roget,” based on an actual case, consists of newspaper clippings dealing with the disappearance and murder of a girl, together with Dupin’s comments; no solution is provided. “Thou Art the Man” is a grotesque tale that does not involve Dupin; the murderer is accused by the dead man rising from a coffin. This tale includes the trail of false clues left by the murderer and the solution involving the least likely suspect to the repertoire of the detective story. “The Gold Bug” applies the method of logical deduction and induction to finding a hidden treasure.

“The Purloined Letter” emphasizes several devices from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and adds several others. The story is divided into two parts. In the first part, Monsieur G--, Prefect of Police in Paris, visits Dupin with a problem: A letter has been stolen and is being used to blackmail the person from whom it was stolen. The thief is known (Minister D--) and the method is known (substitution . . .

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