Edgar Allen Poe and the development of the mystery novel

January 4, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, Private eye, writers, writing.

American author Edgar Allan Poe — whom we all read in school and some continued to read long afterwards — gets lots of credit for developing the modern detective/mystery novel. He was not the first to write about mysterious crime and its solution, but his five short stories (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, The Mystery of Marie Roget, Thou Art the Man, and The Gold Bug) pointed the way for future writers to develop this genre.

In addition, Poe — the literary critic — had some definite thoughts about the detective story. It should contain the “unity of effect of impression” that he believed could only be achieved by a short story or something that could be read in one sitting. Plenty of authors have taken the detective story to the novel form and maintained this unity.

But Poe also wrote that

  • the mystery should be preserved throughout most of the story, 
  • that the mystery should converge in the denouement (“There should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.”), and
  • that no “undue or inartistic means should be used by the author to conceal the solution to the mystery.”

This information all comes from Detnovel.com, a website created by Prof. William Marling, who has written extensively on the topic of the detective novel.

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