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Edgar Allan Poe invented the ‘amateur detective’ story

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Law, Literature on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

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This edited article about Edgar Allan Poe first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 558 published on 23 September 1972.

Edgar Allan Poe,  picture, image, illustration

Poe at work under Catalina's feline eye by Charles Sheldon

The investigator was faced with a tricky problem. Who could have committed the murder in the sealed room? When the chevalier, C. Auguste Dupin, made his first appearance in 1841 his creator, Edgar Allan Poe, had brought into being the first detective in fiction. At this time, the word “detective” was unknown. The detective office at Scotland Yard had yet to be established, and in America, where Poe lived and worked, very few cities had police forces of any kind.

Poe was less interested in his “tales of ratiocination,” as he called his detective stories, than in his fantastic horror tales. He wrote only three “Dupin” mysteries: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.”

But by using a less astute associate as a foil for his brilliant amateur detective, he set a pattern followed by many later writers, notably Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston in 1809, while his parents, travelling actors, were on tour. After his father’s death the following year, his mother continued to support herself and her three young children until she died in 1811.

Edgar was taken into the family of a wealthy merchant, John Allan, whose name he adopted as his middle name. When Edgar was six, he went with the Allan’s to England, where they lived until their return to America in 1820.

Edgar’s relationship with John Allan was not a happy one. When he went to the University of Virginia, Allan would not support him. There was a violent quarrel because his foster-father insisted on his preparing for a legal career, and he left the university and went to Boston. Here he published his first book, “Tamerlane,” anonymously and without success.

Under an assumed name, and having lied about his age, Edgar entered the army in 1827. On her death-bed, Mrs. Allan pleaded for a reconciliation between her husband and foster-son. Allan agreed and, with his help, Edgar entered the Military Academy at West Point in 1830. Edgar had only entered West Point to help the reconciliation and, when relations with Allan finally broke down, he purposely got himself dismissed for neglect of duty.

It was now 1831, and Poe went to New York where “Poems by Edgar Allan Poe” was published. He continued his writing career in Baltimore, where he stayed with his aunt, Maria Clemm. He began writing stories for magazines and won a prize for “A MS Found in a Bottle.” On the strength of this, he was offered an editorial post on the “Southern Literary Messenger.” While he was with this magazine, he wrote many reviews, poems, essays and short stories which helped to increase its circulation.

In 1836, he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, who was only 13, and a year later the couple, together with his aunt, moved to New York. His realistic romance of the sea “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” was published here in 1838.

The family moved again in 1839, this time to Philadelphia. Poe held positions on various magazines to which he contributed some of his best-known works including “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

Poe returned to New York in 1844, where he was for a time literary critic of the “New York Mirror” before becoming proprietor of the “Broadway Journal” where “The Pit and the Pendulum” was first printed.

After this venture, Poe was unable to find regular employment and at times he, his wife and aunt were near starvation. In 1847, after a long illness, Virginia died.

Although Poe himself died at the early age of 40, he left a mass of writing. His stories of fantasy and horror are world famous and the Dupin mysteries firmly establish him as the “father” of the detective story.

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