LitHub’s This Week in Literary History for the week of April 17-23, 2022 commemorated the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s Magazine April 1841, thereby launching the modern detective story.
One might take issue with the statement that Poe “invented” the detective story: E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1819 Mademoiselle de Scuderi certainly counts as a detective story, in my mind; and you can trace demonstrations of Holmesian-style ratiocination all the way back to at least the 1557 story cycle Peregrinaggio (you can find my retelling of the specific tale I’m thinking of here). But it is true that Poe’s Auguste Dupin and the adoring narrator-friend of Dupin’s cases defined the framework that gave us Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the entire genre of ratiocination-style tales as we know it today.
So, to commemorate Poe’s achievement, today I’m presenting a lesser-known, non-Dupin crime story by Poe:
Thou Art the Man: Wealthy Mr. Shuttleworthy takes a trip to the city; he never arrives. His horse returns home, wounded and riderless. What happened to Mr. Shuttleworthy? Was he murdered? And by whom?
“Thou Art the Man” is generally considered inferior to the Dupin tales (“an interesting sort of failure,” Daniel Hoffman called it), but I think that’s unfair. It is not a ratiocination-style whodunit. If you try to judge it as such, it clearly fails: the culprit is glaringly obvious–deliberately so. But it is a crime story, and by that criterion alone, it’s not a bad tale. It makes some true observations about the psychology of crowds, and how easily they can be manipulated. It’s got a pleasantly gruesome climax, and even features some primitive ballistics analysis.
It’s also clearly meant to be humorous, or sardonic. I think it’s fair to say that you can read the story as a parody of the ratiocination tale: a genre that Poe himself invented. It just goes to show that Poe couldn’t resist making fun of anything, including himself.
The story was filmed at least once, as part of the (unfortunately mediocre) French anthology film Histoires extraordinaires (1949). The film has two other segments credited to Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado”), but for some reason this segment gets credited to either Thomas de Quincey or Baudelaire. Go figure. It was a decent segment, actually, though I wouldn’t recommend the film overall.
But at least you can read the story. Do check it out, and see what you think.
Part of the Classic Crime series.
Featured image: Detail of illustration by J. Watson Davis for Mystery Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, 1907. Source: Hathi Trust