It’s Christmas Eve, you’re keenly watching for snow and listening for reindeer hooves on your roof, and Christian and I are moving onto the lesser crime stories of Edgar Allan Poe — the weaklings which nevertheless still hold some sway where the development of detective fiction is concerned.
Here’s how things have gone previously:
Week 1: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)
Week 2: ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ (1842)
Week 3: ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844)
Week 4: ‘The Gold Bug’ (1843) and ‘Thou Art the Man’ (1844)
Week 5: ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840), ‘Into the Maelstrom’ (1841), and ‘The Oblong Box’ (1844)
‘The Gold Bug’ (1843) concerns one Mr William Legrand, who lives in isolation on the edge of civilisation in South Carolina with only a manumitted ex-slave called Jupiter for company. Befriended by our narrator, Legrand begins to exhibit increasingly odd attitudes towards the drawing he makes of an unusual, gold-coloured bug he describes having found one evening, and soon Legrand, Jupiter, and our narrator are engaged in an increasingly sanity-questioning undertaking involving trees, shovels, and the discovery of quite a few dead bodies.
‘Thou Art the Man’ — and, yes, you are correct, since the title is in quotation marks I should be rendering it as ‘”Thou Art the Man”‘ but I refuse to on the grounds that it looks too damned weird — concerns “the Rattleborough enigma” surrounding the disappearance of Mr. Barnabas Shuttleworthy. Having set out on his horse one day, and the horse returning injured and without its rider, a search is made, Shuttleworthy’s body is found showing clear signs of murder. Suspicion is quick to fasten itself upon his nephew, Pennifeather, despite the efforts of Charley Goodfellow — who has some history of antagonism with Pennifeather — to convince the townsfolk otherwise, and, well, a surprise is in store for someone…
Remember, full spoilers ahead; the reader is warned.
Christian: First, I am sure you’ll agree with me that ‘The Gold Bug’ is not a mystery story. It’s an adventure story, which is arguably a sister genre to mysteries, but not actually part of the mystery genre itself. What we have is a story about a treasure hunt, where William Legrand uses codebreaking to find the treasure in question. In fact, I’ve read that Robert Louis Stevenson took some pointers from this story when he wrote Treasure Island (1883), so maybe this could be seen as the forefather to these treasure hunt stories? I’m not as well-read in that genre, but off the top of my head I can’t come up with an earlier treasure hunt story. The two main ones I can remember are the aforementioned Treasure Island and Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885)..
Jim: Like you, I’m not well-versed in my mid-19th century treasure-finding stories. But if this was the first, I can understand its appeal – ciphers and code-breaking were nothing new at the time, of course, but it’s easy to take for granted how little of this knowledge was in the public consciousness
Christian: The cipher part of this story is arguably the part that makes it interesting for a researcher into the early roots of mystery fiction. I think I managed to glean from some of our previous conversation that you weren’t all that fond of the codebreaking.
Jim: It’s boring from a modern perspective; substitution ciphers are the least interesting because it’s just a frequency game. For me, it’s that element which doesn’t stand up, even though I can appreciate it in context, as I say. I came to this hoping my recollection was wrong and that something more interesting was being done…only to be disappointed again.
Christian: I am of the opposite feeling – I think it’s the best part of the story. The other bits are long-ish and the adventures our three protagonists have to endure on their way to finding the treasure aren’t particularly exciting. And by golly, is Jupiter’s patois hard to understand. Anyway, I like the whole lecture on codebreaking and following the thoughts that lead Legrand to solving this puzzle. (Interestingly, I’ve read that many editions of this story have an error in the cipher, which means that the solution that Legrand reaches is wrong…)
I can understand you (or anyone) being bored by it, I just don’t share the sentiment. Solving puzzles like this interests me no end. The Sherlock Holmes stories which revolve around codes and ciphers are my absolute favourites. In stories like these, I will almost always attempt to solve the code myself. 😊
Jim: Legrand can consider himself lucky that the cipher was discovered when it was, since the frequency of occurrence of letters in the English language now reads:
e t a o i n s r h l d c u m f p g w y b v k x j q z
…where Poe (and so Kidd) has it as the markedly different:
e a o i d b n r s t u y c f g l m w b k p q x z
Though since Poe excludes both j and v I’m inclined to believe he’s just making it up.
I will concede, though, that Legrand’s assumption the code is in English on account of the Kidd/kid pun is a nice piece of justification. I don’t know if you read this in Swedish and so the justification doesn’t quite work – because it would be a Swedish pun, right, and so the code should be in Swedish – but I guess authors weren’t too concerned about foreign markets back then.
Christian: No, I read this in English, because I don’t have it available to me in Swedish. But the pun actually works in Swedish too, though you have to switch the animal to a deer, because their offspring are called “kid” in Swedish. (Though not pronounced the same way as “Kidd”, it would probably work in this context because of the similarity in spelling.)
Jim: Huh. Nifty.
Anyway, no matter what you think about the passage in question, I think there is no doubt that it had a great influence on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I can’t remember off-hand how many of his Holmes stories include ciphers and codes, but it’s at least a handful. Though I think it’s also arguable that its influence has lessened somewhat. At least I can’t come up with many modern mysteries that rely on codebreaking. I actually think that other genres may have picked it up instead, and you could even say that it’s branched out into its own genre – Escape Rooms and that ilk.
I suppose the code-breaking mystery has eased off because the ones it’s easy for people to follow are the likes of this, simple substitution or Caesar-shift ciphers, and the ones that are hard and going to surprise the reader are possibly too complex to explain succinctly. Additionally, who really wants to read a mystery to watch someone slowly unpick a code? I would just skip to the part where it’s deciphered and save myself the tedium. But, either way, I think that codes have very much made their beds in the Dan Brown ilk of thriller fiction, where a whole book can be devoted to them (see also: The Rule of Four (2004) by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason – well, don’t, because it’s tedious in the extreme).
I liked it… ☹ Well, it’s not a huge favourite of mine, but it’s better than Dan Brown, that’s for sure.
I wonder if it’s purely because the search in ‘The Gold Bug’ is for treasure that this would be viewed more of an adventure story. GAD has invoked cryptography, but usually as part of a larger scheme. If this code is used to unveil proof that, say, the accusations of piracy against Kidd were forged would we consider it more of a crime story? Its inclusion in collections as among his crime tales seems a bit of a reach, especially as we’ll be discussing two stories next week that also aren’t considered in his crime output and yet might be argued to have an influence on the genre…
Yeah, I agree with you. ‘The Gold Bug’ is always trotted out as one of Poe’s “BIG FIVE MYSTERY STORIES”, but I think that claim is quite tenuous. You will recall that I thought we might as well lump in ‘The Gold Bug’ with the other two stories that we’ll cover next week…
As you say above, Jupiter’s patois becomes increasingly difficult (and to the modern mind, embarrassing) to read, but overall I was interested at his treatment in this narrative: as far as I can tell, he gets an equal split of the treasure recovered, which given his manumission shows the he was never really on equal terms socially and so came as something of a surprise. I suppose Poe couldn’t really have Legrand or our narrator shoot him and bury him in a ditch Kidd-style to keep the secret, but I wonder if the division of the loot with an ex-slave caused any comment at the time.
That’s a good observation, though I’m not sure it holds up. I re-read the paragraph now, and it really doesn’t say anything about Jupiter getting to keep one third of the treasure. What is said is simply that Legrand and the narrator return from Legrand’s home with three sacks and that they divide the treasure equally among them. Like you, I would be inclined to interpret it as Jupiter receiving a third of the share, but I can also see that it could be interpreted as them dividing the treasure in three equal parts in order to make it easier to transport it back again. It’s not hard to see that maybe the more bigoted views of that time might interpret it that way instead.
Yeah, I’ve double-checked and I’m misplacing that quote in my memory. The only reference to the spoils after the events in the story is that “upon the subsequent disposal of the trinkets and jewels (a few being retained for our own use)” – so who’s to say who is involved in the “our” there? The modern mind hopes Jupiter got his share, but history might suggest otherwise. Maybe this is why Poe doesn’t tell us!
Moving on to ‘Thou Art the Man’…
This was actually the best read for me in this project of assessing Poe’s stories and their influence on the mystery genre. I’d only read it once before, and my impressions of it then weren’t all that positive. However, this time I enjoyed it quite a bit more. I think this is because now I am more well-read in the genre. I can see how Poe subverts some of the tropes of the mystery genre and turns them on their head and produces something that is similar to a parody of the genre. What is even more impressive is that Poe does this before there even is a genre to parody! I mean, what we have at that point in time is only Poe’s other stories…
I’d agree; my memory was of it being tedious, but with the benefit of hindsight (or possibly foresight, I guess, given what the mystery genre was to come) there’s a lot here that’s clearly a huge influence.
Another thing that made my feelings positive is that we’re not treated to any of Poe’s long discussions on what he thinks the story is about to convey. It gets directly into the story and doesn’t faff about.
He couldn’t restrain himself entirely, however: we get a lecture on the meaning of cui bono?, (but the likes of nem. con. pass without comment – presumably because it was more familiar at the time, even though it’s fallen from common usage these days). This sort of thing always tickles me.
I find it mildly amusing that the English language uses so many obscure Latin abbreviations.
The narrator seems like the world’s biggest dunce to begin with. The whole plot revolves around a braggart who has killed one of his neighbours, and goes on to try to pin the crime on the victim’s nephew in a highly obvious way. The narrator and every other nameless character in the story take his words at face value and follow his every instruction and insinuation.
What is it with Poe and nameless narrators, incidentally? All five of the stories we’ve read so far are told in the first person by someone whose name we never learn…
And all incidental characters – except in this story! – are called G― or D― or something similar…
But then Poe turns everything on its head by revealing that the narrator is just a bit savvier than everyone else – he’s known all along and manages to reveal the whole truth by fairly grisly means. There’s some similarity to ‘Rue Morgue’ in this final bit, because the detective in both stories uses a great shock to get a confession from the culprit (or in the case of ‘Rue Morgue’, the main witness).
If you examine it in any depth the whole thing falls apart – just because our narrator saw a gleam of hatred when a man was struck he suspects him of murder, finds a body, and is thus convinced that the struck man is the murderer… I mean, but for the Spontaneous Confession (a trapping the detective novel could well have done without) there’s nothing to link Charley Goodfellow with the murder. Hell, if I opened a crate expecting it to be full of wine and a dead body popped out, I’d probably die on the spot.
There’s also the small matter of clues like the waistcoat found in the water with ‘blood’ on it…how the heck did Goodfellow get that from Pennifeather? And how did it not occur to anyone that the bullet which shot the horse left both an entry and an exit wound? Surely that would be Horse Doctoring 101. This shows either the callowness of the genre in terms of how evidence is accrued and used – notice how on nothing but a waistcoat and a knife that Pennifeather is dragged before a magistrate and “no doubt remained of [his] guilt” – or it’s Poe not really bothering if it makes sense. I can’t decide which…
Eh. I think Poe is ridiculing the mob mentality and lack of common sense of people here – I mean, it turns out that the blood on the shirt and handkerchief is nothing but claret (and by inference, surely the blood on the waistcoat is also simply blood red wine?). As for how Goodfellow got hold of these items – the whole thing had been planned over a longer period, so I’m happy to give Poe some leeway in here. Surely Goodfellow could have been able to appropriate some of Pennifeather’s clothing over time.
Yeah, but Pennifeather was seen wearing the waistcoat on the day in question…but only earlier on in the day. Though maybe he just has two very similar waistcoats…which would support your idea of ridiculing mob mentality. God, I need to stop over-thinking these things…
Ah, I had missed that Pennifeather was supposed to have worn it the same morning… However, the timeline Poe establishes is a bit wonky there and very hard to follow. It really doesn’t say anywhere exactly WHEN the search for Shuttleworthy is made. Poe states that it took place over a matter of days and weeks, and we don’t get to know exactly which day they made the find of Pennifeather’s waistcoat. So I suppose it’s within the realm of possibility that Goodfellow (fitting name, that!) could have acquired the waistcoat at a later date.
Phew! I can stop obsessing over this entirely unimportant detail, then. Man, it’s a wonder I ever allow myself to enjoy anything…
Unlike ‘The Gold Bug’, this story belongs squarely in the mystery genre. What sets it apart from the Dupin stories is that this is not quite a mystery of detection, because Poe has to obfuscate a bit in making the narrator the detective. He cannot reveal everything in clues – instead it’s the broad strokes of the narrative that will reveal what is actually happening to the savvy reader. (The unsavvy reader will have to wait until the narrator explains everything in the final paragraphs…)
Though how savvy must the reader be to come to the conclusion that a corpse has had a whale bone jammed down its throat?
Not that that is the most important point. 😊
Nevertheless, my semi-serious griping aside, it’s undoubtedly a cornerstone of the mystery genre, and paved the way for the least-likely suspect far more adequately than did ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ – not least because the suspect is here from page one, rather than parachuted in at the end. I especially like how Goodfellow gives the speech in defence of Pennifeather that ’unintentionally’ riles the crowd so they take against him more markedly than before. It’s little touches like that which have secured Poe’s reputation for fathering the detection genre, and provided the principle of declaration of clues that we all still obsess over to this day.
Yep, it’s that incendiary speech that I referred to above with “insinuations”. If you approach this story with some knowledge of mystery storytelling you’ll immediately recognise this speech for what it is. But obviously the people of Poe’s time couldn’t be, and therefore it all works quite nicely.
Out of interest, do you – or any of our readers – happen to know if “Od rot me” as used by Shuttleworthy herein as a form of swearing was actually an expression at the time? I’m intrigued by the similarity between it and “Od rot you”, the curse placed upon a poor unfortunate in Hake Talbot’s debut novel The Hangman’s Handyman (1942). Given the gloomy setting of that book, it would be lovely to think that was a deliberate nod to Poe.
Most of the references I find to this curse are from this particular story, but that’s probably because of its influence. I found a “pirate’s dictionary” which contains both variations. Apparently, pirates were known to use them.
Pirates have dictionaries? Presumably to avoid arguments – and a scurvy dog being run through with me cutlass – over their evening Scrabble games…
They do! And all entries begin with an R.
And, on the subject of future mystery stories, I wonder how much this story – rather than another one we could name but probably shouldn’t for fear of spoilers – influenced John Dickson Carr’s ‘The Gentleman from Paris’ (1950), given the last-minute revelation of a particular character there as here. It’s almost a sort of double-homage, wouldn’t you say?
It’s certainly possible, but it should also be pointed out that Carr did exactly the same thing in ‘The Black Cabinet’, written one year later, and that story has no ties to Poe at all.