Today in fiction
On April 1, 1800, Stephen Maturin challenges Jack Aubrey to a duel; a great friendship ensues.
— “Master and Commander” (1969)
by Patrick O’ Brian
From “The Book of Fictional Days”
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1841, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in Philadelphia’s Graham’s Magazine. It is generally considered to be the first detective story, although as the word “detective” did not yet exist, Poe called this “a tale of ratiocination.” Though he realized that he had “something in a new key,” Poe could not have known that he was giving the nascent genre many of its prototypes: the “locked-room” crime, the gentleman-amateur detective, the sidekick-narrator, and others. The story also gave a boost to both the fledgling Graham’s and the struggling author — in Poe’s case, bringing him popularity not only at home but in France, where several magazines were caught trying to pass the story off as their own.
Impressed by the display of deductive logic, one contemporary critic thought the story “proves Mr. Poe to be a man of genius,” a view which Poe also liked to promote. This might manifest itself as a declaration to his readers that he could solve any cryptogram, or as a parade of languages and learned quotations; it might also emerge as his Eureka lecture on “the cosmology of the universe.” This last was a wild hodgepodge of science and speculation, much of it cribbed — a lifelong habit with Poe, though the fact that he was among the first, struggling generation of professional writers in America might excuse it.
Ever conflicted, Poe combined these three talents — self-praise, sleuthing and pirating — in an odd article entitled “A Reviewer Reviewed,” written about 1846 under the pseudonym of Walter G. Bowen. “Bowen” praises Poe’s “scholarship” and “analytic talent,” and then goes on to point out numerous examples of “willful and deliberate literary theft” that he had detected in Poe’s writing. Poe did not finish or publish the article, the need to make a living presumably winning out over the need to be clever.
One of Poe’s most famous ratiocinations was fictional in the other sense: While Dickens’ “Barnaby Rudge” was still in serialization, Poe deduced the killer, a feat which amazed (and could not have pleased) the author. Poe also criticized Dickens for not making more use of the talking raven, Grip, in the novel, and then went on to borrow him for his famous poem. Dickens’ bird and his writing desk are now displayed in the Free Library in Philadelphia, as is the manuscript of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”
– Steve King
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