Modern mystery writers owe a literary thankyou to the American writer of the mid-1800s, Edgar Allan Poe. Most readers recognize Poe by his famous works such as “The Raven” or the more dark and creepy tales like “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Tell-tale Heart.” Yet Poe also wrote a series of what he called tales of ratiocination (the process of exact thinking), which helped shape the development of the modern mystery, including the techniques used in the Sherlock Holmes detective stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Poe’s parents died when he was a child, and he lived with foster parents until age 17. After a short time in college and a brief attempt at a military career, he founded a journal and began a publishing career that later failed. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, yet these repeated endeavors resulted in a financially difficult career and tumultuous life. (Poe married his 13- year-old cousin who died of tuberculosis 11 years later. Her death caused Poe great grief and he never remarried.)
In his works, Poe wrote about revenge, the plague, and insanity and is credited with the emerging genre of science fiction. Poe even wrote love stories and short comedies but is best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre.
In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1842), Poe introduces private detective C. Auguste Dupin, who places himself in the perpetrator’s mind. The police are unable to solve this apparently simple mystery, in which Dupin says, “The solution is hidden in plain sight” and proceeds to solve the bizarre and heinous crimes by logically considering every stitch of evidence available.
Critics say “The Purloined Letter” redefines the mystery genre by turning away from action toward intellectual analysis. The queen watches helplessly in horror while a royal minister steals an incriminating letter of hers right under her nose and in the very presence of the king for purposes of blackmail. Dupin inhabits the consciousness of the criminal. He does not use fancy psychological theories, but rather imitates the train of thought of his opponent.
He succeeds in operating one step ahead of the police because he thinks as the criminal does.
Biographers continually comment on Poe’s twisted and tormented life, which undoubtedly influenced his writings and, in turn, revealed dark aspects of his nature. The psychoanalysts Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud and other therapists focused their interest in Poe entirely on the minds of his characters and how they are affected by their experiences.
Analysts have suggested that Poe’s works say something about the workings of the criminal mind. Indeed, in “Rue Morgue” and “Purloined Letter,” his alter ego, Dupin, uses extraordinary powers of logic in besting the local police in solving the crimes.
Scholars make connections between Poe and concepts in psychoanalysis in how his work reveals himself. For example, Freud’s term of “repetition automatism” refers to the compulsion to repeat a traumatic event over and over, hoping, perhaps, for a different outcome. Although the patients have forgotten the origins of the compulsion, they may come out in earlier parental relationships or through behavior — or writings. No one deliberately seeks failure and pain, but the victim repeats some unconscious desire. Freud simply set about trying to understand the nature of this helpless bondage to repeated anguish.