Text: Bruce I. Weiner, “That Metaphysical Art; Mystery and Detection in Poe's Tales,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 32-48 (This material is protected by copyright)


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Despite some recent challenges, Edgar Allan Poe continues to hold the patent on the invention of the detective story. Scholars trace his inspiration to Scripture and the Classics, to Voltaire’s Zadig (1748), Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) and the sensational Mémoires (1828) of the French detective, Francois-Eugène. Vidocq, but most agree that the form Poe gave to his detective tales was original and definitive. Everything since, argues Jacques Barzun, is only elaboration and complication.(1) Some critics maintain, moreover, that Poe’s theme in fiction reaches a climax in the solutions of his detective, C. Auguste Dupin, Dupin, they argue, is Poe’s ideal projection of himself as artist, the poet-mathematician who combines imagination and reason to achieve transcendental vision.(2)

Poe, however, took a more modest view of his invention. Although he consistently ranked the Dupin stories among his best, he also made light of them as puzzles or hoaxes. Writing to his friend, Philip Pendleton Cooke, in 1846, two years after he had abandoned his detective, Poe admitted that the “hair-splitting” of Dupin “is all done for effect.” People think his tales of ratiocination “more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, for instance, where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.”(3) Poe complained to Cooke, moreover, that in the last collection of his fiction (Tales, 1845), selected by Evert Duyckinck, too much space went to the ratiocinative, misrepresenting the “wide diversity and variety” of his tales. Each, Poe protests, “is equally good of its kind,” although “the loftiest kind is that of the highest imagination — and, for this reason only, ‘Ligeia’ may be called my best tale.”(4)

“Ligeia” (1838) may be Poe’s best tale, but it is not altogether a different kind of tale from “Murders” (1841). It too pits a protagonist against a mystery, the solution of which promises the sort of transcendental vision Dupin seems to achieve. The mystery in “Ligeia,” however, remains impenetrable. The frantic efforts of the narrator to fathom the strange nature of his [page 33:] wife ironically anticipate the calm deductions of Dupin. Indeed, so desperate is Ligeia’s husband for a solution that he implicates himself in a crime. Similar elements of unsolved mystery are present in other tales Poe published just prior to the advent of Dupin, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “William Wilson” (1839) and “The Man of the Crowd” (1840). As Stuart Levine argues, the Dupin stories “should not be considered as an isolated handful of experiments in a totally different genre.”(5) Not only do they advance Poe’s preoccupation in the tales with the possibilities of transcendental, artistic vision, as Levine suggests, but they do so in the form of mystery and detection.

The theme that links these tales would seem to culminate in the detective stories, Dupin emerging in 1841 as Poe’s “Transcendental Hero” or “Detective God.”(6) Why, then, does Poe belittle the ingenuity of “Murders” and call “Ligeia” his best tale? We know that he associated “the highest imagination” in poetry with “indefiniteness” and in fiction with an “undercurrent of meaning” that remains submerged.(7) Is the unsolved mystery then the higher art? I would argue that Poe manages the solutions of Dupin at the expense of his artistic convictions. In the unsolved mystery he dramatizes an indeterminate struggle for transcendental vision, such as he suggests in “The Poetic Principle,” defines and limits the aesthetic and spiritual aspirations of mankind. In the detective tales he indulges in hoax and fantasy, displacing the struggle for transcendence with the illusion or “air” of success. The human quandaries of the protagonists in the unsolved mysteries give way to the godlike omniscience of Dupin.


Although Poe owes debts to Voltaire, Godwin and Vidocq, the form of mystery and detection he employs in tales as diverse as “Ligeia” and “Murders” may come more directly from unknown tales like Robert Mac nish’s “Who Can It Be?,” in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for 1827. There is no mention of Macnish or his fiction in Poe’s works, but the American was a careful reader of Blackwood’s and could not have failed to notice “Who Can It Be?” or tales like it that Macnish published under the pseudonym, A Modern Pythagorean. “Who Can It Be?” is a type of mystery story that was popular in Poe’s day. William Blackwood, publisher of the magazine, thought that it owed something to Washington Irving’s “The Stout Gentleman,” and it has been identified as a source for Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.”(8) These are tales in which a narrator tries to discover the identity of a mysterious stranger.

In “Who Can It Be?” Macnish’s narrator, nervous and lethargic after a heavy meal on a hot evening, is about to doze off when his curiosity is aroused [page 34:] by a stranger pacing back and forth outside his dining-room window. There is “apparently nothing remarkable about the man,” but the narrator is “irresistably attracted” to him. “What could be the meaning of this? There was something unfathomable about him; his name was Mystery, and the longer I looked at him the more miraculous did his whole appearance seem.”(9) As in Irving’s tale, the narrator’s perplexity is largely comic, spoofing in this case the fashion of anonymous and pseudonymous authorship in magazines like Blackwood’s and the lack of real distinction in famous men and their ideas. Macnish also seems interested in the drama of his narrator’s consciousness. The effect of the heat and the heavy meal, on the one hand, and the mysterious stranger, on the other, divide the narrator’s “corporeal and mental functions. . ., the former inspiring me to sleep, the latter striving to keep me awake.”(10) He oscillates between a desire for the release of sleep and a compelling “wish to know” who the stranger is, between nervous reverie and rational observation. He tries, like Dupin, to deduce the stranger’s identity from his features, dress and gait, but his detective work produces only greater confusion and a relapse in to languorous trance. Waking again to observation, the narrator is further frustrated by his attempt to solve the mystery. Finally, he rushes out in a fit of anger to confront the stranger, only to find him gone.

Poe’s narrator in “The Man of the Crowd” is similarly perplexed by a mysterious stranger he observes passing outside the London cof fee-house in which he sits convalescing after a long illness. As in “Who Can It Be?” the mystery serves to revive the narrator, to provoke him into consciousness and action. Poe’s character is already aroused into excited observation of the crowd when the countenance of a “decrepid old man” arrests his attention and compels him “to keep the man in view — to know more of him.”(11) Unlike Macnish’s narrator, Poe’s must give chase to satisfy his curiosity, but his detective work produces a similar confusion of reason and anxious speculation. After shadowing the old man’s lonely pursuit of the London crowd for a night and a day, the narrator is “at a loss to comprehend the waywardness of his actions” (M.2:514). Like Macnish’s narrator, he tries at last to solve the mystery by confronting the stranger face to face, but the old man passes him by without noticing him. Macnish’s narrator surmises in frustration that his stranger is “neither more nor less than a villain;”(12) Poe’s concludes cryptically that the Man of the Crowd is “the type and genius of deep crime” (M.2:515),

In these tales and Irving’s “The Stout Gentleman” too, mystery seems to induce consciousness, to provoke a semi-conscious, solipsistic narrator into awareness and action. All three narrators are aroused from some listless [page 35:] state — Macnish’s narrator from his after-dinner drowsiness, Poe’s from his convalescence, Irving’s from boredom — into a state of wakeful observation, and they are all compelled by a desire for knowledge. The mystery in each case, however, proves impenetrable and the narrators become increasingly bewildered, frustrated, aggressive and preoccupied with a sense of evil or crime. Thus the pattern of the tales is ironic. The mystery that brings the narrators to life serves also to define their mortal limitations, literally reducing Macnish’s narrator at one point to a state of unconsciousness. Poe’s tale, however, takes seriously what is only comically suggested in its sources. In “The Man of the Crowd” we are made conscious of some horrible mystery of the human condition and, in the narrator’s attempt to solve it, some profound limitations of human understanding.

Ellery Queen was the first to recognize “The Man of the Crowd” as a detective tale, seeing in Poe’s narrator a prototype of both the “armchair detective” and “gumshoe” (he dons caoutchouc overshoes to pursue the old man).(13) Significantly, in time of publication and probably composition, “The Man of the Crowd” immediately precedes “Murders,” Although Poe shifts the focus of mystery in “Murders” from the type and genius of deep crime to the type and genius of crime detection, the pattern of mystery is much the same. Dupin too is drawn out of a listless and dreamlike retirement from the world by a mystery that exercises his powers of observation and reason. “Observation,” Dupin tells his companion — echoing the narrator of “The Man of the Crowd” — “has become with me, of late, a species of necessity” (M.2:535). Dupin’s attention is fixed not by the sight of a mysterious person but by newspaper reports of a brutal murder, committed apparently by some mysterious person or persons possessing unusual strength and speaking a strange tongue (I should note that the mysterious stranger in Irving’s tale also remains out of sight). The obvious difference between these tales is that Dupin solves the mystery. Although some of the bewilderment and frustration of the narrators of “Who Can It Be?,” “The Stout Gentleman,” and “The Man of the Crowd” survives in Dupin’s companion, who tells the tale, the mystery in “Murders” serves primarily to evoke the extraordinary acumen of Dupin.

Dupin, however, is an anomaly. The puzzled protagonist and unsolved mystery are far more prevalent in Poe’s fiction. “The Man of the Crowd” is not the only tale in which a mysterious stranger frustrates a desire for knowledge. Finding his own wife a stranger, whose mysterious nature he cannot explain, the narrator of “Ligeia” exclaims: “What was it — that something more profound than the well of Democritus. . .What was it? I was possessed with a passion to discover” (M.2:313). The narrator of “Usher” [page 36:] asks the same question when he unwittingly observes in the facade of Usher’s mansion an image of his estranged friend: “What was it . . . what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble” (M.2:397). The narrator of “William Wilson” is similarly perplexed by a mysterious person who looks like him and bears his name: “Were these, — these the lineaments of William Wilson?. . .What was there about them to confound me in this manner?” (M.2:437). There is no Dupin to solve these mysteries, perhaps because, though they lead us to suspect the commission of crimes, they call for an investigation of metaphysical problems. We may wonder whether the narrator of “Ligeia” has murdered his second wife Rowena to effect Ligeia’s return from the dead, whether Roderick Usher has knowingly buried his sister alive, or whether William Wilson actually kills his double, but these questions are subsumed by the profounder mysteries of the characters’ suffering. Crime in these tales is symptomatic of a fallen human condition; as in “Who Can It Be?” and “The Man of the Crowd,” some mysterious evil or iniquity seems at once to provoke and limit consciousness. This kind of mystery becomes even more explicit in tales Poe published after the invention of Dupin, such as “The Black Cat” (1843), “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845) and “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), which, like “William Wilson,” take the form of a condemned man’s confession. We read these tales wondering not who done it but why. They recall the narrator’s opening remarks in “The Man of the Crowd” about men “who die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors . . . die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed.” It is a burden of conscience “so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave” (M.2:506-507).

Poe’s unsolved mysteries may have their source in tales like “Who Can It Be?” but they aspire to the metaphysical significance of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, and Billy Budd, which also draw us into investigations of mysterious persons or things that are “types” of deep crime. The Romantics, we know, were disposed to see the world as a mystery, having rejected the rational and mechanistic view of the previous age. Emerson, for one, welcomed the challenge of a mysterious universe because he believed that it would arouse his listless and, retrospective age, much as a mystery arouses Dupin, into a wakeful sense of its own vital capacities. In the view of some, Dupin embodies an Emersonian faith in the power of human intellect and will to penetrate the mystery of experience, to discover a correspondence between the real and the ideal.(14) The metaphysics of the unsolved mysteries of the Romantic age, however, follow the more skeptical line of works like [page 37:] Byron’s verse-drama Cain, subtitled A Mystery. As Paul Cantor argues, Byron’s aim in investigating the first murder was to demonstrate more radically than Milton had in treating Adam’s fall that “thehuman condition is one of exile and alienation.”(15) Byron’s Cain is a model for Romantic protagonists like Hester Prynne, Ahab and Billy Budd, whose crimes are a response to their inability to solve the mystery and correct the apparent injustice of their existence.(16) The Man of the Crowd, apparently, is an even more radical version of Cain, one who has lost all consciousness of Eden and become, as Genesis predicts, a creature of the city. His deep crime, so far as we can tell, is not an act but a condition of profound alienation and despair. William Wilson too, that “outcast of all outcasts most abandoned,” is a type of Cain, driven paradoxically by his own conscience, as Byron’s Cain is by his sense of justice, into a life of crime.(17)


According to W. H. Auden, the psychological appeal of detective stories is precisely to the sense of guilt we inherit from Cain. They are parables, he argues, of innocence restored, of an ideal world of order disrupted by a murder and set right again by the detective god. As such, however, they are a literature of fantasy and escape, less significant as art than, say, Crime and Punishment because less accurate concerning the mystery of human suffering.(18) Poe’s Dupin stories, however, have long been ascribed the high artistic purpose Auden would deny them. For example, one of the earliest admirers of Poe’s detective tales, the French journalist E. D. Forgues, believed that the ultimate aim of Poe’s use of the Calculus of Probabilities to describe the methods of Dupin was “to subdue an obstinate unknown quantity by the power of induction, to neutralize the resistance it offers to reason, and to gain mathematical certainty in regards to moral problems” and “eternal Principles.”(19) Forgues observes a similar purpose in much of the fiction of the day,

There are as many enigmas as there are tales and all of them take diverse forms and guises. Whether wearing the fantastic livery of Hoffman or the grave and magisterial costume of Godwin renovated by Washington Irving or Dickens, it is always the same combination which sets Oedipus and the Sphinx by the ears — a protagonist and a puzzle . . . an impenetrable mystery of the intellect, which irritated. . .by the veil stretched before it, solves the enigma after incredible operations of the mind rendered in the most minute detail.(20)

In Forgues’s view the solved mystery predominates, and he prefers Poe’s ratiocinative tales because they contain a logic that “has all the appearance, if [page 38:] not the reality,” of subduing the unknown. In these tales, Forgues argues, Poe is the logical master of cosmic mysteries, whereas in tales like “The Man of the Crowd” and “The Black Cat” he is merely a poet, “an inventor of objectless fantasies, of purely literary whims.”(21) As Sidney Moss noted in bringing Forgues’s essay to light, he fails to see the connection between these two kinds of tales.(22) The confrontation between protagonist and puzzle is present in both, but logic and minute detail prove no match for the mysteries in “The Man of the Crowd,” “The Black Cat” and “Ligeia.”

The metaphysical purpose Forgues attributes to the tales of ratiocination really belongs to the unsolved mysteries. Dupin’s success, in fact, results largely from a shift to mysteries of a lower order. It may be, as Edward Davidson suggests, that crime in the Dupin stories disrupts the ostensible order of things to permit a glimpse of an ideal world beyond,(23) but Dupin is not directly engaged with the ideal. He is as ardent a student of Transcendentalism as the narrator of “Ligeia,” but the mysteries he solves are material. They are outre but not occult, brutal or clever but not, like the mystery of the Man of the Crowd, deep. Indeed, the paradox upon which Poe builds his detective tales nullifies the problem of the unsolved mysteries. “Truth is not always in a well,” Dupin tells the narrator in “Murders,” but “as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial” (M.2:545). So much for the mystery of Ligeia’s eyes, “more profound than the well of Democritus.” Contrary to what Dupin suggests when he scoffs at the police for holding the object of their investigation too close, or failing to realize that a star is more clearly seen when looked at askance, this is more than a difference of how we look at truth. The cosmic mystery in “Ligeia” is reduced in “Murders” to the dimensions of the typical whodunit. Dupin circumscribes the mystery himself when he dismisses the possibility of the occult: “It is not too much to say that neither of us believe in praeternatural events. Madame and Mademoiselle L’Espanaye were not destroyed by spirits. The doers of this deed were material, and escaped materially” (M.2:551),

Still Poe tries to have it both ways with Dupin. By confining him to an investigation of material crimes, Poe satisfies those doubts about the power of human understanding that prevail in the unsolved mysteries, but he characterizes Dupin’s analysis as a “moral activity which disentangles,” which partakes of the reciprocal laws of physics and metaphysics (M.2:528; 8:989). The true analyst displays “a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition” (M.2:528). In these propositions about the faculty of analysis, Poe attempts to bridge the distinction, current in the psychology of his day, between the [page 39:] rational and imaginative faculties, between the discriminating powers that tie us down to the material world and the creative intuition that elevates us to the ideal.(24) The method of the true analyst, according to Poe’s narrator in “Murders,” is the converse of the artist’s creative process. The question remains, though, whether Dupin’s analysis in practice is the “metaphysical acumen” it is supposed to be in theory. Donald Stauffer maintains that it is. Dupin’s solutions “are actually flashes of intuition” which “approach that vision of the ultimate unity of all things which [Poe] was to set down in its final form in Eureka.”(25)

Stauf fer asks us to suspend our disbelief, however, in an illusion that Poe himself discredits. In “The Mystery of Marie Roget” his narrator admits that Dupin’s solution of the Rue Morgue murders “was regarded as little less than miraculous” only because the “simple character of those inductions by which he disentangled the mystery” were never explained to the police or the public. Although Dupin’s “analytic abilities acquired for him the credit of intuition,” his “frankness would have led him to disabuse every inquirer of such prejudice” (M.8:725). Ironically, the narrator himself is guilty of promoting such prejudice, for he functions chiefly to convey the impression that Dupin’s solutions are miraculous flashes of intuition.(26) Poe’s strategy in the detective tales, to paraphrase the narrator of “Murders,” is to make Dupin’s solutions appear preternatural to the ordinary intellect, to give them the whole air of intuition, while revealing that they are, in fact, brought about by the very soul and essence of logical method. The effect is achieved by Dupin’s unexpected announcement to the bewildered narrator that he has solved the mystery, making it seem like clairvoyance. Then Dupin backtracks to explain the chain of reasoning that led to his conclusion. Not preternatural, Dupin’s analysis seems no less marvelous, for even when explained it appears abstruse to ordinary intellects like the narrator.

In “Murders” the narrator offers his tale “in light of a commentary upon the propositions” he has advanced regarding the faculty of analysis, propositions that link analysis to intuition and imagination. He then tells of his acquaintance with the eccentric Dupin, who has withdrawn from the world to dwell in the gloom of “a time-eaten and grotesque mansion.”The narrator reinforces the suggestion of his initial propositions by connecting Dupin’s “rich ideality” with “a peculiar analytic ability” that he exercises in reading men’s thoughts. The first example of Dupin’s analysis is thus presented by the narrator as an act of clairvoyance. Strolling with the narrator one night near the Palais Royal, Dupin suddenly breaks in upon his companion’s thoughts as if to read his mind. Astonished, the narrator asks for an explanation and Dupin traces his interruption back to the last remarks they [page 40:] exchanged by a series of inferences he drew from the narrator’s movements and mumblings. The method is inductive, although the accuracy of Dupin’s inferences does some violence to the calculus of probabilities. But the anecdote establishes the pattern for the murder mystery to follow. What seems preternatural to the narrator turns out to be quite rational, though no less astonishing.

Dupin’s solution to the murders is more strictly logical than his mind-reading. This time he follows up and verifies conclusions drawn initially from newspaper accounts of the murders by visiting the scene of the crime, making sure that his “deductions are the sole proper ones, and that the suspicion arises inevitably from them as the single result” (M.2:550).(27) Still his solution comes as a surprise to the narrator and the reader. Having shared with us the newspaper accounts of the murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, the narrator tells briefly of Dupin’s investigation of the scene, carried out “with a minuteness of attention for which I could see no possible object” (M.2:546). Just at this point, when the narrator is about to throw up his hands at the peculiar circumstances of the crime, Dupin reveals that he has solved it. Again, his acumen seems uncanny, but only because his method has not been fully revealed to us.

Dupin reaches his conclusion not in a flash of intuition but by means of inductive reasoning and some careful detective work. He explains that he began with a suspicion, engendered by the newspaper reports of the murders and “sufficiently forcible to give a definite form — a certain tendency — to my inquiries in the chamber” of the victims (M.2:550). His sleuthing at the scene of the crime, where, the narrator tells us, he “scrutinized everything — not excepting the bodies of the victims” (M.2:546), may seem hypocritical in light of his ridicule of the “vast parade of measures” employed by the police, but it serves actually to point up the logical nature of his investigation. Whereas the methods of the police are “ill adapted to the objects proposed” (M.2:545), Dupin’s are adjusted to the circumstances of the crime. His investigation is directed by logic rather than routine. He goes to the scene of the crime having already inferred from the newspapers that the assailant is “absolutely alien from humanity.” How else to explain the horrible brutality of the crime, the apparent lack of motive and means of escape, and the shrill utterances that several witnesses of different nationalities all describe as sounding “foreign”? Guided by a reasonable suspicion, Dupin can uncover evidence that the police overlook and explain circumstances that they cannot.

The logical method that governs Dupin’s investigation at the scene of the crime becomes evident when he asks the narrator to consider first the [page 41:] problem of the “hermetically sealed” room. Having dismissed the possibility of preternatural causes, Dupin reveals that he eliminated all the means of egress except two fourth-story windows, apparently nailed shut, which overlook the rear courtyard where the body of Mme. L’Espanaye was found. The police are stymied when the windows resist their efforts to open them, but Dupin reasons that “all apparent impossibilities must be proved to be not such in reality” (M.2:552). He discovers that the windows are fastened not only by visible nails but by hidden springs. If it were not for the nails, one of the windows could have been open, enabling the murderer to enter and escape, tripping the spring as he went. Dupin tries the nails and finds that one of them has long been broken in place. Reasoning, as he says, a posteriori, from effect (the murderer was material and escaped materially) to cause, Dupin can explain the “impossible” and narrow his suspicion. The extraordinary agility required to scale the wall to enter or leave by the window confirms his idea of the alien nature of the criminal.

Dupin’s explanation of how he solved the problem of the sealed room brings the narrator only slightly nearer the truth. Finally Dupin must produce a key piece of evidence, a tuft of coarse hair from the grasp of the mutilated Mme. L’Espanaye, which even the narrator can see is “no human hair” (M.2:558). Dupin confirms that it belongs to “the large fulvous Ourang-Outang of the East Indian Islands” (M.2:559). That the police could overlook this clue and others noticed by Dupin seems unlikely, but it is the literary license Poe exercises to keep us guessing and to emphasize his point. The clues are missed and consequently withheld from us because the police and the narrator cannot logically adjust their investigation to fit the crime. Proceeding a priori, from the assumption that the murderer is human, they are blind to evidence of the inhuman.

According to G. R. Thompson, Poe’s strategy in “Murders” typifies “the basic ironic technique” of his fiction. The rational and supernatural are kept in tension by Dupin’s reasoning, which works in effect to bring the narrator and the reader to a “flesh-creeping sense of the uncanny.” just when we are unnerved by the realization of “a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity” (M.2:558), Dupin calmly provides further evidence and explanation of his solution. In Thompson’s view, “the sense of grotesque horror is momentarily increased by Dupin’s matter-of-fact tone and then dissolved abruptly by the rational explanation” in the end.(28) The irony, I would suggest, however, is of a different sort. The rational explanation does not so much dissolve the sense of the uncanny as displace it. Poe wants us to accept finally the legitimacy of Dupin’s reasoning, but he wants us to regard it with awe. To the ordinary intellect, it should appear preternatural. Poe anticipates [page 42:] here what Jacques Barzun takes to be the defining characteristic of detective fiction: an intense interest in the material world, in the “inescapable necessity in the workings of physical nature.”(29) In the detective story, the real and rational are marvelous. Surely Poe means to evoke our wonder at Dupin’s unravelling of physical circumstance:

“To use a sporting phrase, I had not been once ‘at fault.’ The scent had never for an instant been lost. There was no flaw in any link of the chain. I had traced the secret to its ultimate result, — and that result was the nail . . . . ‘There must be something wrong,’ I said, ‘about the nail.’ I touched it; and the head, with about a quarter of an inch of the shank, came off in my fingers (M.2:553).”

Detective fiction, Barzun claims, is “the romance of realism.”(30) Poe’s narrative strategy in “Murders” makes for precisely this kind of romance. The narrator’s propositions about the faculty of analysis and the tale he offers to illustrate them work to produce an ironic verisimilitude, making the matter-of-fact seem wonderful, the rational appear preternatural.

David Ketterer suggests that Dupin is a “viable Usher,” living in the gloom of a “time-eaten and grotesque mansion . . . tottering to its fall” (M.2:532) yet able to avoid the universal disintegration that overcomes Usher by “the potent combination of intellect and imagination.”(31) Dupin, however, is not confronted by the kind of occult mystery that haunts Roderick Usher. “If he is a seer,” David Halliburton contends, “he is a seer of circumstances.”(32) Unlike the protagonists in the unsolved mysteries, who draw us into an investigation of metaphysical problems, Dupin limits us to a consideration of physical crimes. His detective work is only loosely connected to the metaphysical by analogy. In “Marie Roget,” for example, Poe suggests that his attempt in fiction to solve an actual crime demonstrates an analagous parallel between real and ideal events, between the physical and metaphysical realms — clearly a faulty logical extension. There is nothing metaphysical about this tale, just painstaking and sometimes fallacious “deduction.”(33) That he did not pursue the connection between the physical and metaphysical further in the Dupin stories, Halliburton suggests, “indicates Poe’s recognition that the detective tale had boundaries that it could not cross without becoming another kind of work.”(34)

I do not mean to minimize Poe’s accomplishment in the detective tales. They are ingenious and they endure, as Philip Van Doren Stern once observed, because they are more artful and probing than much of the detective fiction they spawned.(35) Viewed in relation to the broader pattern of Poe’s mystery and detection, though, they cannot be called his best tales or even his [page 43:] best mysteries. “Ligeia,” “Usher,” “William Wilson” and “The Man of the Crowd” are more compelling because more akin to our experience of mystery in the world. In tales like “William Wilson” and “Usher,” according to S. K. Wertz and Linda L. Wertz, we find “genuine mystery.” This is to be distinguished from the “problem” in “Murders” or the “puzzle” in “The Gold-Bug,” solved respectively by acquiring new knowledge or clarifying what we already know. For “genuine mystery” there is no objective solution because the inquirer finds himself involved in, or part of, the mystery he investigates. His inquiry leads to a preternatural encounter with the terms or limits of his own existence. Such is the experience, as we have seen, of the narrators in Poe’s unsolved mysteries. Whereas “genuine mystery,” according to the Wertzes, “provides the basis for a more comprehensive understanding of human existence,” the detective tales smack of “a bogus act of abstraction” from existence, a pretense to objectivity and control that falsifies experience.(36)

Poe’s own sense of the bogus pretension of the detective tales informs his letter to Cooke and may explain why he abandoned the form in 1844, parodying it in “The Oblong Box.” In this tale the narrator’s comic ineffectiveness as a sleuth “illustrates the speciousness of an intellectual system out of touch with the problems of human fallibility and mortality.”(37) Thus, just four years after the invention of Dupin, Poe returns by means of irony to the point of “The Man of the Crowd.” The narrator here is no better a detective than the narrator in “The Oblong Box,” but his perplexity is a response to the genuine human mystery his decadent counterpart does not even see.


There is some evidence in Poe’s criticism of the mystery and detection genre that he regarded the unsolved mystery as the work of higher imagination. Just a month after “Murders” appeared, Poe published a “Prospective Notice” of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, then only partially serialized. He followed up a few months later with a full review of the completed novel, claiming to have solved Dickens’s murder mystery in the earlier notice. The real value of the review, however, lies in Poe’s perception of the disadvantages of mystery writing.(38) Dismissing the historical pretext of the novel and reading it primarily as a mystery, Poe observes that in narratives like Barnaby Rudge, where “every point is so arranged as to perplex the reader and whet his desire for elucidation,” the author arouses an interest in many points that would otherwise be dull but only at the expense of obscuring those points which are most interesting, those which enable us to see how and why the [page 44:] mystery came about. According to Poe, this is why mysteries like Barnaby Rudge are better reread. He contend s, moreover, that the mystery writer is not likely to satisfy the curiosity he arouses; “the anticipation [of the denouement] must surpass the reality,” especially where there is, as in Barnaby Rudge, “a skilful intimation of horror held out by the artist . . . . These intimations — these dark hints of some uncertain evil — are often rhetorically praised as effective — but are only justly so praised, where there is no denouement whatever — where the reader’s imagination is left to clear up the mystery for itself — and this is not the design of Mr. Dickens.”(39) Poe articulates here a rationale for the unsolved mystery of deep crime or evil. In criticizing Dickens for failing to resolve his mystery effectively, Poe perhaps justifies his own method in “Murders” of initiating Dupin’s solution halfway through the tale, balancing anticipation with explanation, but he also seems to define a mystery of higher imagination. Dickens, Poe claims, is no mystery writer at all; he is best at “tales of ordinary sequence. He has a talent for all things, but no positive genius for adaptation, and still less for that metaphysical art in which the souls of all mysteries lie.”(40) By “adaptation” Poe means the art of mimesis in complex narrative, of ravelling and unravelling a sequence of events so as to maintain an illusion of truth or probability. This art, he suggests to Cooke, accounts for the ingenuity of his detective tales. Yet this he relegates to “the metaphysical art in which the souls of all mysteries lie.” Poe is evidently distinguishing between those webs of plot the mystery writer weaves for the express purpose of unravelling and those mysteries of the human condition, those “dark hints of some uncertain evil,” which cannot be explained.

Poe had not only a talent but a positive genius for both kinds of mystery. His genius for both, however, reflects a sharply divided view of the human condition. Man’s fate in the unsolved mysteries is to become conscious of his mortal limitations; in the detective tales it is to transcend them in the exploits of Dupin. As Auden suggests of all detectives in fiction, however, Dupin is the product of fantasy. He answers to our wish for escape from the reality of human suffering and uncertainty. Poe could not sustain Emerson’s faith that “we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable ,.. that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy.”(41) The correspondence between real and ideal events, between the human and divine, that Emerson perceived by means of an intuitive “Reason” eluded Poe’s imaginative ratiocination. Still, when he abandoned his detective in 1844, he did not forsake the faculty of analysis but continued to use it in tales like “Mesmeric Revelation” (1844) and “The Power of Words” (1845) to address more directly the ultimate questions of life, death and the [page 45:] hereafter. In his late work, Eureka, Poe sought by means of ratiocination to solve the metaphysical mystery of the origin and destiny of the universe. He offers Eureka as a “Prose Poem” or “Romance,” a work of imaginative analysis in which the artistic unity is to make manifest the divine order of things. Poe aims for the ultimate mimesis, but he is forced to admit, even as he tries to convince us to the contrary, that the artist’s skill at “adaptation” must fall short of unravelling the plot of God.(42) Despite the sometimes prophetic wisdom of Eureka, it seems to me to confirm finally the vision of the unsolved mysteries. His cosmogony describes a universe whose inexorable movement towards annihilation intimates some horrible, uncertain evil and whose mysteries remain all insoluble.

[page 48, continued:]


1.  The Delights of Detection (New York, 1961), p. 12. Others acknowledging Poe as inventor of the detective story are Arthur Conan Doyle, Through the Magic Door (London, 1907), p. 114; Dorothy L. Sayers, The Omnibus of Crime (New York, 1929), pp. 9-10; Ellery Queen, 101 Years’ Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories, 1841-1941 (Boston, 1941), p. vi; Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (New York, 1941), p. 12; A. E. Murch, The Development of the Detective Novel (1958; rpt. New York, 1968), p. 83; Julian Symons, Mortal Consequences: A History-From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (New York, 1972), p. 27; Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Blackwood Articles à la Poe: How to Make a False Start Pay,” RLV, 39(1973),418-432. The most serious challenge to Poe’s patent is R. F. Stewart’s ‘. . . And Always a Detective’: Chapters on the History of Detective Fiction (North Pomfret, VT, 1980), ch. 2.

2.  See Edward Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, MA, 1957), pp. 217-222; Stuart Levine, Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman (Deland, FL, 1972), pp. 166-167; and David Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge, 1979), pp. 221-222, 238.

3.  O. 2:328.

4.  O.2:329. In the same year Poe wrote Evert Duyckinck that “Ligeia” is undoubtedly the best story I have written” (O.2:309). Two years earlier, in a letter to James Russell Lowell, Poe listed his “best tales” in the following order: “Ligeia,” “The Gold-Bug,” “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “William Wilson,” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom” (O.1:258).

5.  Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman, p. 166.

6.  The characterizations belong to Levine, p. 162, and Robert Daniel, “Poe’s Detective God,” Furioso, 6 (1951), 45-54.

7.  See for example Poe’s “Letter To B;” H. 7:xxxv-xliii and his reviews of Thomas Moore’s Alciphron, 10:65-67; Longfellow’s Ballads and Other Poems, 11:73-80; and “Tale Writing . . . Hawthome,” 13:148-149. [page 46:]

8.  “Tales, Essays, and Sketches by the Late Robert Macnish, LL. D. (London, 1844),2:56. J. Lasley Dameron was the first to notice the similarity between “Who Can It Be?” and “The Man of the Crowd,” Popular Literature: Poe’s Not So Soon Forgotten Lore (Baltimore, 1980), pp. 8-10. Macnish and Irving were in fact parodying a fashionable genre. Irving classifies “The Stout Gentleman” with those stories “greedily sought after at the present day” about “mysterious personages that have figured at different times, and filled the world with doubt and conjecture; such as the Wandering Jew, the Man in the Iron Mask, who tormented the curiosity of all Europe; the Invisible Girl, and last, though not least, the Pig-faced Lady” — Bracebridge Hall in The Works of Washington Irving (New York, 1909), 3:47.

9.  Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 22(1827), 433.

10  Ibid. Macnish, a doctor, was well known for his interest in unusual states of consciousness, having authored popular treatises on The Anatomy of Drunkeness and The Philosophy of Sleep.

11.  M.2:511. Further references to Poe’s tales will be to this edition.

12.  Blackwood’s 22(1827), 437.

13.  Ellery Queen’s Poetic Justice. . . (New York, 1967), p. 86.

14.  See n. 2.

15.  “Byron’s Cain: A Romantic Version of the Fall,” KR, n.s. 2(1980), 52.

16.  Hester and Billy are explicitly compared to Cain in chapter 5 of The Scarlet Letter and chapter 3 of Billy Budd, although Ahab perhaps more obviously bears his mark.

17.  The first murder is also suggested by Montresor s killing of Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado.” Seeking revenge for the “thousand injuries” Fortunato has done him, Montresor seems to strike out like Cain against a capricious fate. His revenge recalls the jealous motive of Cain’s crime. “For the love of God,” Fortunato cries out as Montresor walls him up in the wine cellar. “Yes,” Montresor replies, “for the love of God!” (M.3:1263).

18.  “The Guilty Vicarage,” The Dyer’s Hand (New York, 1962), pp.157-158. Cf. Daniel, “Poe’s Detective God,” p. 54 and Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, 1973), p. 129.

19.  Forgoes’s essay, entitled “Etudes sur le Roman Anglais et Americain,” appeared in Revue Des Deux Mondes, n. s. 5(1846), 341-366. I quote the translation of Sidney P. Moss in “Poe as Probabilist in Forgoes’ Critique of the Tales,” New Approaches to Poe: A Symposium, ed. Richard P. Benton (Hartford, 1970), p. 4.

20.  Ibid.

21.  Ibid., p. 10. Forgues was reviewing the edition of the Tales (1845) that Poe characterized the next year in his letter to Cooke as too full of the ratiocinative.

22.  Ibid., p. 11. [page 47:]

23.  Poe, p. 217.

24.  Donald B. Stauffer, “Poe as Phrenologist: The Example of Monsieur Dupin,” Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, O, 1972), pp. 118-119.

25.  Ibid., pp. 121-122.

26.  Daniel — “Poe’s Detective God,” p. 49 — observes of Dupin that his “success seems intuitive, but really results from the methodical analysis of data” (p. 48).

27.  Poe uses the terms “inductive” and “deductive” loosely. Although parts of Dupin’s investigation proceed deductively, his conclusions following necessarily from certain premises, he is at the scene of the crime to narrow his suspicion about the murderer. Verifying, or making more certain, a suspicion or inference is part of the process of inductive reasoning. Even when Dupin announces to the narrator that he has solved the crime, he is not wholly certain of his conclusions (M.2:548).

28.  Poe s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison, WI, 1973). p. 119.

29.  “From Phaedre to Sherlocke Holmes,” The Energies of Art (New York, 1965), pp. 307-308.

30.  The Delights of Detection, p. 11.

31.  The Rationale of Deception in Poe, p. 243. Cf. Daniel, “Poe’s Detective God,” p. 46.

32.  Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, 1973), p. 239.

33.  For the fallacies in Poe’s tales of ratiocination, see William K. Wimsatt, Jr., “Poe and the Mystery of Mary Rogers,” PMLA, 55(1941),230-258 and J. Woodrow Hassell, Jr., “The Problem of Realism in ‘The Gold-Bug’,” AL, 25(1953),179-192.

34.  Poe: A Phenomenological View, p. 245. There are readings that take the detective tales to be a different kind of work than I am suggesting. See for example Richard Wilbur’s “The Poe Mystery Case,” New York Review of Books, 13 July 1967, pp. 16, 25-28; Daniel Hoffman’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, pp. 103-133; Jacques Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’,” trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, YFS, 48(1972), 38-72; and David I. Grossvogel’s Mystery and Its Fictions: From Oedipus to Agatha Christie (Baltimore, 1979), pp. 96-105. These readings tend to emphasize, in fact, the unsolved mysteries in the detective tales-the submerged identification of Dupin with the perpetrator or victim of the crime, especially the cunning Minister D —— and the Queen in “The Purloined Letter,” or the undivulged contents of that letter-uncovering in the tales a metaphysical, psychoanalytic, or semiotic significance. Although provocative and often plausible, these readings seem to me to miss the central point of the Dupin stories. Man’s metaphysical aspirations, his fragmented psychology, and the failure of his understanding and language to comprehend the mystery of his condition are more squarely addressed in “Ligeia,” “Usher,” “William Wilson” and “The Man of the Crowd.” These themes are submerged in the Dupin stories not so that we might uncover them in a kind of allegory but so that Dupin s faculty of analysis might prevail. Poe is not so much concerned with mystery in the detective tales, strange as that may seem, as with solutions. The operation of Dupin’s reason in the solution of a crime is what Poe wants to hold our attention. The suggestion of unsolved mystery in [page 48:] “The Purloined Letter” is especially rich, perhaps signalling the end of Dupin, but the elaborate, subtlety of some of the psychological and semiotic readings calls to mind Dupin’s parting shot in “Murders” at the Prefect of Police, who, “somewhat too cunning to be profound . . . has ‘de pier ce qui est, et d’ ezpliquer ce quin n’ est Alas’ “ (M.2:568).

35.  “The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley,” VQR, 17(1941), 227-228.

36.  “On Poe’s Use of ‘Mystery’,” PoeS, 4(1971), 7-10.

37.  J. Gerald Kennedy, “The Limits of Reason: Poe’s Deluded Detectives,” AL, 47(1975), 195.

38.  J. Brander Matthews, “Poe and the Detective Story,” Scribner’s Magazine, 42(1907), 287-293; The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 84.

39.  H.11:49-50, 58.

40.  Ibid. p. 64.

41.  Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whither (Boston, 1957), p. 22.

42.  H.16:291-292.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - That Metaphysical Art; Mystery and Detection in Poe's Tales (Bruce I. Weiner, 1986)