Literary Qualities

Although Poe is credited with the creation of the detective story and the character type known as the amateur sleuth, obviously Auguste Dupin and his ratiocinative ability did not spring from nowhere. Probably the two most obvious sources are Voltaire’s Zadig (1748) and Eugene Francois Vidocq’s Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police (1828-29). Poe probably knew the story of Zadig’s being able to deduce the description of the King’s horse and the Queen’s dog by examining tracks left on the ground and hair left on bushes. He also mentions Vidocq, the first real-life detective, in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” as a “good guesser.”

However, Poe’s creation of the ratiocinative story also derives from broader and more basic interests and sources. In several of his most famous critical essays, such as his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and his theoretical articles, “Philosophy of Composition” (1846) and “The Poetic Principle” (1848), Poe discusses his own aesthetic theory. He maintains that in a literary work every detail should contribute to the overall effect. This theory is appropriate for the creator of the detective story since every detail, even the most seemingly minor, may be a clue to the solutions of the story’s central mystery.

Poe was familiar with gothic stories, which were often based on the concept of a hidden sin and filled with mysterious and unexplained events. Like the detective story, they moved inexorably toward a denouement that would explain these puzzles. The early English gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), with its secret guilt and cryptic clues, was a precursor of the detective story.

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