[Poe] is the undisputed father of the detective story, although he would have been disconcerted by many of his children and grandchildren.”–Julian Symons

Readers love mystery and detective stories. They always have. In recent years, as the Death of the Novel is loudly proclaimed once again, mystery stories have continued to be popular. Whether they are “cozy” or “hard-boiled” or something in between, they offer the irresistible lure of a story, with an intriguing beginning, a thrilling middle, and a satisfying end.

The classic form of the detective or mystery story was established by Poe, elaborated upon by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and, in America, Anna Katharine Green. It was then brought to glorious and everlasting life by Arthur Conan Doyle and, to a lesser extent, Agatha Christie.

The form is this: a crime is committed, either in the present or the past. It must be a crime serious enough to engage the reader’s attention. The solution may involve the police, or a brilliant amateur, or both. The brilliant amateur frequently has a less gifted sidekick to whom matters must be explained. The sidekick provides for the emotional attachment of the reader, since neither Sherlock Holmes nor Hercule Poirot–not to mention their innumerable progeny–are emotionally involving characters. “Elementary, my dear Watson!” and “little grey cells” are the clues to the brilliant amateurs’ psyche, and we follow happily along as they work their way through the red herrings and the genuine clues to the solution of the mystery. In the Twentieth Century a third type of investigator, the intrepid “PI”, was added to the mix.

The Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s brilliant amateur, set the pattern with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” In its successor, “The Purloined Letter,” the crime is not so gripping, but Dupin is engaging enough–and the form was new enough–to ensure its place in the mystery canon.

Since the Nineteenth Century, the mystery form has undergone many permutations. We have lone PI’s and intrepid female detectives from Harriet Vane and Miss Marple and Nancy Drew to modern ladies who are not always ladylike. We have an international cast of detectives, and we even have canine and feline detectives. Eminent critics like Edmund Wilson have ruffled feathers and harmed their own reputations by attacking the mystery/detective genre. No matter. Its allure survives.

Somewhere, E.A. Poe is smiling.

Further Reading

Edgar A. Poe. Kenneth Silverman

Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe. John Evangelist Walsh

Mortal Consequences: A History from the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. Julian Symons

Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. Howard Haycraft

Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader's Companion. Perpetrated by Dilys Winn

Murderess Ink: The Better Half of the Mystery. Perpetrated by Dilys Winn

Poe. Peter Ackroyd

Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. Daniel Stashower

The Art of the Mystery Story. Howard Haycraft (Ed.)

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. Daniel Stashower

The Tell-Tale Heart: the Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe. Julian Symons