Fear in Writing: The Birth of the Detective Story

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Birth of the Detective Story

Today is the day it all began for us crime writers.

Today, in 1841, the world's first detective story appeared in print.

The story is one you have most likely read (or should at least lie and say you have, as there is really no excuse)--The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Think about all you know of detective fiction...The thinking detectives of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Louise Penny.  The character-driven plots of James Lee Burke.  The non-professional crimesolvers in almost every other mystery book of today.

All of these stem from Poe's creation--Dupin and Rue Morgue.

I often talk of remembering our writing heritage.  Today is a day for that.  I challenge you to find a copy of this piece of fiction and read it again.  (Read it for free on the Poe Museum website here.)  Think about Poe's intention--introducing 'ratiocination' into the thought processes of the day.  He also emphasized the importance of reading and writing through Dupin's utilization of newspaper accounts in solving the crime.  These were modern ideas in 1841.

As I said in my recent post on books, I just finished The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower. In that book, I learned a lot about Poe's process for placing works in publication. It wasn't a pretty process for the genius, and I highly recommend the book for those interested in learning more about Poe, the crime that helped change New York City's police force, and how to write compelling true crime.

How do you incorporate these ideas in your writing?  Knowing that the armchair detective and using newspapers and other written sources in crimesolving comes from Poe, does that make you appreciate him more?  Will it make you read his stories again, this time with a closer eye to structure?

If you saw a flash of another article in your sidebar or on this site, you aren't crazy.  I originally wrote a different post for today, and then realized the event about which you just read could not go unnoticed on a crime writer's blog.  Check back tomorrow for the original post, Raising a child, Raising a book.


  1. You want to know something weird? I'm going to write about Detective Fiction on Thursday for my Roots of Steampunk series. Sheesh, you and Susan Quinn have both now written about things I'm going to before I do it.

    Y'all need to get out of my head. ;)

  2. Oh, Matthew...That's the beauty of this field! Everyone has a different take...And I just gave you the opportunity to advertise your upcoming post! You should be thanking me. ;)

  3. Thank you for this post. No, I did not know the detective story was born today- the only April birthday I celebrate is Shakespear's. This week calls for a double celebration.

    AND, I kept the post you originally posted unread, because I wanted to comment on it eventually. Now, I can happily do so!
    ~ Rayna

  4. I just learned something!
    True crime must be daunting to write.

  5. I've always admired Poe more for his detective stories than anything else. He was truly brillant!!

  6. Poe was in a class all by himself. I love to hear someone who really knows Poe read and expalin. ANd I do incorporate some true crime into my books. I have a couple detectives working the murders who will ultimately make the connection with my protagonist. But that story will have to wait until the next installment is published.

    Stephen Tremp

  7. I promise to reread it tonight.

    There has been debate over who created detective fiction. T.S. Eliot claimed "The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins (1868) was "the first and greatest English detective novel".

    I have in my library mystery stories dating back to ancient times.

    But there is little debate over who is most responsible for today's mystery/detective genre. It is Poe. He created the first rules. His work made the subject popular and accepted by the public. Others would follow such as Collins, Doyle, Christie, Hammett, and Chandler that would leave their mark on my favorite genre. But it began with Poe.

  8. Poe really created something! It's really interesting to think about the evolution of the detective story :) Great post!

  9. Loved Poe's Dupin. And the ominous feel to his stories...it was Poe, through and through. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  10. Michael is very right to point out Wilkie Collins role in detective fiction. I am a big fan of Collins! But Pos is the originator, with 'Rue Morgue' in 1841.

    I am so glad you are all familiar with Poe's work. I have mentioned him so many times on this site! And to think, the man barely made a living while he was alive.

  11. Ah, the critic in me can not resist to note a scene from "The Murders In the Rue Morgue". Remember when Dupin viewed the bodies? The two dead women had been kept at the scene, a "locked room" in an unair-conditioned house, for at least two days. Now there is a scene the public's horror loving Poe could have done something with.

  12. No. It is more fun to comment and run. No deadline to worry about.

    I began my internet life as yupyop (named for a character in a old forgotten comic strip called "King Aroo") in the newspaper comic strip e-world. It lead to me becoming a submission editor for a long gone internet site called Full Tilt. I did a regular blog for it until I grew tired of it. I had my own thread at a long gone comic strip forum.

    In my past I have had a variety of creative jobs from entertainment editor for a local newspaper to selling two screenplays that never made it to the filming stage.

    At 55 years old I looking back at all the strange work I had done trying to become a successful writer and realized that even those who never make a living at writing have a lot of fun. You end up with great stories. I have been fired on local TV while dozens watch. I was hired to do commentary on a local radio station. The station burned to the ground the night before I was to go on the air. Everything I ever wrote is gone, everyone I ever wrote for is out of business. I don't want to doom the internet too.

    Currently disabled from diabetes, I have turned to writing a book. I may be to blame for all the problems publishers are having.

  13. Michael- Thanks for the interesting biography. You have an amazing attitude--and I don't blame you for publisher's woes. :)

  14. The Beautiful Cigar Girl sounds like an interesting book. I shall have to read it. Great post!