23 d’octubre de 2015

Poe and His Predecessors

[The Ladykillers, 23 october 2015]

Margaret Lucke

Edgar Allan Poe deserves credit and praise as the author of the first detective story published in the English language -- "Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841. 


Those of us who write crime fiction today follow humbly (or sometimes not so humbly) in his footsteps. We have Poe to thank for several of the genre's storytelling traditions:
The series character -- "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" introduced the detective C. Auguste Dupin, who also appeared in "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter." This makes Dupin the first series character of detective fiction.
The amateur detective -- Dupin is also the first amateur detective in an English or American story. A Frenchman from a wealthy family, he is living in reduced circumstances, but his reasons for delving into the cases presented in the stories never include getting paid for the work.
The "Watson"-style narrator -- The narrator is a nameless friend and roommate of Dupin's. This tradition is one that Arthur Conan Doyle often gets credit for because he gave his narrator a name -- Watson -- which in turn has become the general term used for any first-person narrator who recounts the detective's adventures.
Poe didn't call his tales detective stories. The word detective wasn't in common use. In fact it might not have even existed yet. Some sources say the word was coined in the 1830s; others say 1850. Poe called his stories "tales of ratiocination," which is the process of deliberate reasoning in a way that is exact, valid and rational.
Nor did he intend to invent a genre. He was tapping into the popular taste for Gothic and dark romantic fiction, and he was influenced by a couple of European precursors.

One was a novella called Mademoiselle de Scudéri, written in 1819 by E.T.A. Hoffmann. (Yes, the same E.T.A. Hoffmann who wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the basis of the famous ballet.) Its namesake heroine can lay claim to being the first amateur detective in any language. She is an early Miss Marple -- an elderly poet who establishes the innocence of the authorities' favorite suspect in the murder of a jeweler.
The novella, which takes place in Paris during the reign of King Louis XIV, quickly achieved commercial and critical success and helped E.T.A. Hoffmann become rich and famous (unlike Poe). Hoffmann has been referred to as the Father of the Detective Story because the novella is quite likely the first modern detective story to be published.

Then there was the larger-than-life Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857). 
As a teenager, Vidocq distinguished himself as a thief, a member of a band of traveling entertainers, an expert fencer who killed two men in duels, an army deserter, a womanizer, a con man, and a forger. He spent most of his early adulthood repeatedly escaping from prison and being tossed into back in. Finally tired of all that, he offered his services to the police as a prison informant and spy.
Thus began his career in law enforcement. Once released from prison he was made a police officer. He organized the Sûreté Nationale, which became the national police force of France, and was its director for more than 15 years. By the time he resigned in 1827, he was a wealthy man.
He hired ghostwriters, among them Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, to produce the four volumes of his Memoires. They were much fiction as autobiography, but the public didn't care. The books were a huge hit in France, England and America.
Apparently Vidocq got bored with retirement, so he in 1833 founded the Le bureau des renseignements (Office of Information) -- the first known private detective agency. He hired ex-convicts to work for him.
Official law enforcement tried many times to shut the agency down. Finally 75 police officers stormed his office and arrested him. The charge was that Vidocq had unlawfully imprisoned the culprit in an embezzlement case and had taken money from the man on false pretences. He was sentenced to five years in prison and a 3,000-franc fine, but the Court of Appeals released him in less than a year and Vidocq went back to work.
Historians consider Vidocq to be the father of modern criminology and of the French police. Many writers used him as a model for their characters. It's probably no coincidence that Poe's detective, Dupin, is French.

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