Sunday, August 26, 2007

An old story

Have you noticed that well-known quotations get attributed to the same small group of sources whether the attribution is accurate or not? That anything worth repeating in English is said to have come from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Winston Churchill or Yogi Berra?

Edgar Allan Poe occupies a similar role in crime fiction, credited with inventing the detective story and just about every variant thereof: the locked-room mystery, the private-detective tale, the thinking detective, the detective-plus-partner team, the puzzle story, the code-and-cipher tale, etc. Unlike Yogi Berra, though, Poe may get too little credit. He may have been the first comic crime writer as well:
"That is another of your odd notions," said the Prefect, who had the fashion of calling everything "odd" that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of contradictions.
That's from "The Purloined Letter," a reading of which has just prompted these thoughts:

1) The story takes place in Paris, yet, by contemporary standards, nothing save the protagonist's name (C. Auguste Dupin) and the police officer's rank (prefect) marks the setting as French. In Poe's day, however, the very fact of the story's being a detective tale may itself have carried all the connotations of France that he needed, thanks to François-Eugène Vidocq.

2) In one respect, at least, the story has found more followers in England than in the U.S. Dupin and his unnamed narrator are, of course, the direct fathers of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The distinct superiority of private investigator to police is also, for various reasons, more characteristic of later English detective fiction than of American.

3) The story is all telling, no action. The only sections that take place in the narrative "present" are the meetings of Dupin, his assistant, and the Prefect of Police, Monsieur G– . This might interest followers of Patti Abbott's current discussion of exposition.

4) The anthologists' introduction tells us that "extensive research" has disproved the belief that Poe was plagued by alcohol and drug problems. Rumors to that effect, we are told, were "grossly exaggerated by a rival who sought to discredit him after his death." It is amusing to think there was a time when such things would discredit a crime writer.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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      10 Comments:

      Blogger Linkmeister said...

      It just occurred to me that none of the drugs/alcohol stains on Mr. Poe apparently worried the Fairfax County School Board in the 1960s, since the intermediate school I attended was named after the man.

      I wonder if there are Kurt Cobain Middle Schools in Seattle?

      August 27, 2007  
      Blogger Peter said...

      I would give much to have attended a school named for Edgar Allan Poe.

      I suppose graduates of Kurt Cobain Middle School would move on to Jimi Hendrix High.

      August 27, 2007  
      Blogger Bill Crider said...

      When I used to teach that story, my students complained that Dupin's explanation took up far more space than the actual "story."

      August 27, 2007  
      Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

      The three great literary alumni at Dulwich College my old school were C.S.Forester [The Gun and Hornblower], PG Wodehouse [Jeeves and Wooster] and Raymond Chandler.
      In the 1950s we read and studied Forester, because the other two had seriously blotted their copybooks. Wodehouse had had a complicated war, broadcasting from occupied Europe, and Chandler wrote just crime fiction and had even gone to Hollywood.
      I think I would have enjoyed my schooldays more if the college had been renamed Marlowe-Chandler High.

      August 27, 2007  
      Blogger Peter said...

      Bill, it might make a good exercise to have students read "The Purloined Letter" at the beginning of a term and again toward the end.

      I read it a few months ago for the first time in many years and found it odd for the same reason your students did. Upon this week's rereading, however, I found Poe's technique simply a different way of telling a story, or rather two stories, and it worked. It allowed Dupin to surprise his companion by producing the letter. That was the climax of story number one. And then it allowed story number two, the explanation.

      August 27, 2007  
      Blogger Peter said...

      Speaking of your school days, Uriah, I recently read an alternative explanation for Chandler's choice of "Marlowe" as a name for his protagonist. The explanation slips my mind, but it had nothing to do with Christoper Marlowe.

      August 27, 2007  
      Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

      "Marlowe's name may derive from the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, author of Doctor Faustus; or from Marlow, a narrator found in Joseph Conrad fiction including the novel Heart of Darkness; or from the name of Chandler's house, Marlowe (itself named after the dramatist), at Dulwich College; from some combination of these three; or from none of the above." from Wikpedia.

      I will continue to believe that it was Chandler's revenge on his old school.

      August 29, 2007  
      Blogger Peter said...

      That's it! The Conrad explantion was the one I had read. That was the first time I had read any explantion for Philip Marlowe's name other than the Christopher Marlowe connection.

      I don't remember what, if any, evidence the propounder of the Marlow/Conrad theory offered. The school theory seems plausible because commentators on Chandler and, I believe, Chandler himself frequently talked about the importance of his English education to his writing. Of course, some of the Philip Marlowe stories were published originally with protagonists of other names, the Philip Marlowe name being substituted in later public versions. Maybe Chandler's affection for Dulwich grew as time passed.

      August 29, 2007  
      Anonymous jacob said...

      Peter i think wht bill meant (correct me if i'm wrong) is that it's obvious the students didn't realise dupins explanation of unfolding events was the story.
      However that exercise would be useful from the begining of the term if the students studied Poe's work then read it again a the end of the term and actualy realised the story haha

      November 13, 2008  
      Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

      Jacob, I suspect that you're right, and I think your suggestion could be a marvelous teaching tool. The students would learn about one more way of telling a story.

      November 13, 2008  

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