#613: Little Fictions/Going Home – The Crime Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840), ‘Into the Maelstrom’ (1841), and ‘The Oblong Box’ (1844)

Poe header

The accepted wisdom is that Edgar Allan Poe wrote five stories which formed the basis of the nascent detective fiction genre, and the plan for this month had originally been to look at one story each week.  But that’s what you plan when you fail to account for the rigour and research of Christian, who blogs at Mysteries, Short and Sweet.

Here are the links to all previous discussions this month, comprising the five stories typically associated with Poe’s birthing of ratiocination in fiction:

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)

About two stories into the above, Christian suggested that there were actually several other, disregarded tales in Poe’s oeuvre which might bear investigation.  And while we by no means claim that these now eight stories are exhaustive in this regard — indeed, see below on that front — or that each one is equally as influential as its brethren, undoubtedly there did seem to be something in these tales that we considered worth looking at.  And so, we added ‘The Man of the Crowd’, ‘Into the Maelstrom’, and ‘The Oblong Box’ to this month’s discussion.

I take no credit for this — I would have done the lazy usual suspects but for Christian’s wider reading and intervention — and instead of starting here with a summary of each plot as before, we’ll dive straight in with some explanation from Christian himself (spoilers ahead, remember…).

raven

Christian: People will probably be wondering what we are doing discussing three stories not usually included in this company. Well, as we were getting going with this little project of ours, I started reading a bit more about Poe’s writings and how the five big ones fit in with his general writing development (and by this I obviously mean that I went to Wikipedia and started poking about the Poe articles there.)

The five stories we’ve already discussed here were all clumped together as having had a great influence on the mystery/detective fiction genre. But I was surprised to find mention of a story which involves a trope that is also huge for mystery writers – the trope is surveillance, and the story is ‘The Man of the Crowd’. So, I read on and soon found yet another story that was described as belonging to Poe’s tales of ratiocination: ‘The Oblong Box’. And there’s one final story that contains ratiocination as a large element of the storytelling, ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’, and I’ll just quickly touch upon that one as well.

I should point out here that Poe continued writing in the horror field at the same time as he produced these stories (several of his most famous horror stories come from this fertile period), and also that some of those stories contain elements of mystery. A story such as ‘The Black Cat’ (1843) would fit in fairly seamlessly in a mystery anthology these days, though the horror elements are the main thing there.

The earliest of the three stories is ‘The Man of the Crowd’, which was published just four months before ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ and tells the story of a man who’s sitting at a café where he observes another man in the throng of people outside the window. For some reason, our narrator becomes fascinated by this person and decides to follow him to wherever he is going. The entire story then becomes a re-telling of how the narrator trails his target around the city for almost a full day. The story never resolves anything, and in the end the narrator just decides to stop following him around.

Out of all the stories we’re taking a look at throughout this Poe dissemination, this is the least “mystery-like”. Adventure stories such as ‘The Gold Bug’ and ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ can at least be said to belong to a sister genre (or at least a cousin genre) of mysteries. ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is actually defined as a horror story by the Poe bibliography in Wikipedia, though it’s not Gothic horror. If anything, it’s more of a psychological horror story, though I’d personally hesitate to include it in that genre at all, it feels much too realistic and focuses too little on anything to scare the reader.

Jim: Apart from the fact that there’s no plot to speak of, it feels a lot like the modern crime/thriller jumping off point of “protagonist notices something odd and goes to investigate” – that’s kick-started at least three Jack Reacher novels in recent years.

Christian: Mm, you’ve hit on something there. It’s a storytelling technique that is valid for most any genre, but would be most suitable for a story where there is something that needs to be resolved, either through reasoning or simply through action, which would fit the mystery and action/thriller genres respectively.

Jim: The deliberately inconclusive nature of it was thoroughly unexpected for me when I read it, and there being no resolution is simultaneously frustrating and quite clever.  As you say, it’s a vehicle for almost any form of genre: the old man could turn out to be a ghost or a demon, or he could commit a murder and vanish into the crowd and leave our protagonist to take the blame, or he could lead our protagonist ever further astray until he’s surrounded by a gang of roughs or dragged down a hidden portal to who-knows-where.  The lack of distinction with regards to genre is interesting, but not least of all because of how it invites the reader to impose their own possible explanations and so open up the doors to all manner of genre trappings.  In not picking a genre, Poe gives you the scope to veer from there into any genre you like.

Christian: The reason to include it here in our discussion on GAD is its great focus on surveilling someone. Poe goes to great lengths in describing what the narrator – nameless as usual! – needs to do in order to keep up with his quarry. It’s a trope that I think hardboiled stories have made greater use of than the GAD puzzle stories that we so love, but again I think that Doyle learned a lot from this story – in some of his stories Sherlock Holmes has to follow people around, though he often relies on disguise as well in order to not be detected.

Jim: There is, too, a degree of observational deduction in the way our narrator categorises the different men and women he sees in the teeming crowd before spotting the eponymous man.  Some are “known by their coats and pantaloons of black or brown, made to sit comfortably” and ears “long used to pen-holding” standing out from the sides of their heads, whereas elsewhere we have the slightly less salubrious denizens identified by, among other things, “materials which had once been good, and which even now were scrupulously well brushed”.  Such trenchant, quick observations would go on to become the trappings of the GAD Genius Amateur who was keen to impress.

Christian: Absolutely. We’ve already commented on Dupin’s “mindreading” trick in ‘Rue Morgue’ and how that was appropriated wholesale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s interesting to see a first version of it here, just a couple of months before the publication of the latter.

Jim: And, given the fact that Dupin’s deductions come almost exclusively from how his companion behaves and looks – “neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least”, remember – it’s tempting to imagine that, with ‘Rue Morgue’ on the way, Poe might have his own explanations for The Man’s sudden changes in manner (deliberately, as they do, veering among the various types Poe has outlined at the start of the story).

Thinking

The same month as ‘Rue Morgue’ saw the publication of ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’. This is an adventure tale of a sailor who along with his two brothers get caught in the titular whirlpool just outside the Norwegian coast. While his two brothers perish in the maelstrom, our narrator has enough clarity of mind to notice that certain objects are drawn quicker into the whirlpool than others, and by attaching him to one of the latter objects he manages to survive the ordeal.

This story has none of the immediate influence of any of the other stories we’re taking a look at, simply because it doesn’t really introduce anything new. One could argue that since it’s actually concurrent with ‘Rue Morgue’ and its long tirades on ratiocination and logical deductions, this story is just as influential as the Dupin story – there’s an analogue here with Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin – though I think that would be going too far. On the whole this story can be likened to ‘The Gold Bug’, but the latter’s claim to fame – code cracking – makes it more indispensable to the development of the mystery genre. Nevertheless, ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’ deserves more attention as one of Edgar Allan Poe’s ventures into ratiocination.

I find ‘Maelstrom’ interesting because it’s probably the first time in the reading we’ve done these past weeks where Poe takes pains to set his story in a named, identified locale.  That has no bearing on GAD, but it does fell to me like he learned of a Norwegian storm and decided to use that real life event as the background for a story.  Sure, it’s not new – plenty of other authors had already written thinly-veiled accounts of facts as fiction – it’s just uncommon in my experience of Poe. 

Agreed. In comparison with the other stories we’ve been reading, this stands out in that respect.

The principle of “this physical object has these properties and behaves in this way” would be the essential character of at least three impossible crime stories I can think of right now, too, so it arguably has a place in such a discussion.

Note also, for instance, that great adventure thriller writer Alistair MacLean had a couple of novels that blended action sequences with scenes that could have been taken directly from a mystery novel (cf. Ice Station Zebra (1963), Bear Island (1971)). I wouldn’t necessarily say that he was influenced by this particular Poe story, but it’s interesting that this crossover type of story would still crop up much later.

Arguably you’d see it sooner than that in aspects of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond stories and, if you’re talking Scotsmen, the Richard Hannay novels of John Buchan.  MacLean always seemed to be a logical heir to Buchan, but possibly I’m over-simplifying. And I’m certainly straying from the point.

 You’re probably quite right. I’m not very well-versed in the earlier works of the adventure genre, so I just picked one author who is fairly recent and who most readers should know.

Ah, see, whereas I had a misspent youth.

Thinking

The final story we’ll take a look at here is ‘The Oblong Box’, which was published just a couple of months before ‘Thou Art the Man’ in 1844. If again we take a look at Wikipedia, they classify this story as a horror/ratiocination mix, which seems a fair assessment. Unnamed narrator #8 is taking a journey aboard the ship Independence, and on that trip an old college friend is travelling along with his wife and two sisters, though he has reserved a third room which is occupied by an oblong wooden box. We follow life on board over a few days and get to know the characters before a great hurricane strikes the ship and everyone is made to leave the ship on lifeboats. However, the old college friend returns to the ship in order to retrieve the box…

A box whose dimensions definitely means it absolutely must contain some paintings, we’re meant to believe.

Yeah, a box about six foot long. Hmmm…

Yes, “six feet in length by two and a half in breadth”… now what are those dimensions typically associated with?  Cough, cough – excuse me, this coughin’ has me feeling very grave

If we compare this story to the other two stories here, or for that matter, the other five stories we’ve read, there is nothing new here. But I think what we’re seeing is a definite development on the way to the pinnacle of Poe’s stories of ratiocination. (Which is ‘The Purloined Letter’, of course). What ties this story in with the mystery genre is the final part where the ship’s captain explains everything that was happening on the ship. It has to be pointed out that there is no reasoning here (except perhaps from the reader of the story, if he is so inclined), but the captain’s explanation fills a similar role to the “detective gathers all the suspects in the final chapter” trope.

We also have an unreliable narrator – something that’s been increasingly popular in modern crime fiction. However, he is not unreliable because he wishes to conceal the truth, it’s simply that he is too obtuse to interpret all the clues correctly. He is simply Hastings without Poirot… One can draw some parallels between his faulty reasoning and the reasoning the villain Goodfellow uses in ‘Thou Art the Man’ to pin the crime on Pennifeather.

Surely our narrator being too dense to realise what’s happening doesn’t make him unreliable?  We’re told what he sees, so the narration is fine, and if he’s too obtuse to interpret it correctly, at least when the explanation comes the reader can see how those events could explain the preceding actions…

No, I guess “unreliable narrator” is not quite the correct term. I simply meant that what he is telling the reader is completely incorrect at almost every turn and thus the reader cannot trust a single thing he says.

…from which we can draw a line straight to Watson or Hastings or Jeff Marle, as you say.  The captain of the ship knows what’s happening and so doesn’t need to reason thing out as would Sherlock, Poirot, or H.M., but there’s a case for this doing a little more for the mystery genre than I initially considered.

Thinking

As a summation of this undertaking, my own view of Poe’s influence is that it’s hard to overestimate. These eight stories that I’ve read (or in some instances, re-read) have been very instructive, as has the extra reading I’ve done on Poe. I’ve always held a picture of Poe as the horror writer who just happened to write three Dupin tales as a very isolated crop of stories. But as we can see from the additional stories we’ve discussed over this month these stories cannot be taken in isolation. Over half a decade, Poe developed his theses on ratiocination, becoming more assured and crowning his development with ‘The Purloined Letter’.  It is telling, I think, that after that story, he never really returned to ratiocination again.

I had a similar notion of Poe based on the first five stories being the majority of what I read of his work for a long, long time.  Through the likes of M.R. James and Sheridan le Fanu I ended up reading more of Poe’s Gothic stuff and never really considered that there was much crossover ‘twixt the two.  He seemed to have two modes: verbose rationality and talking birds, as if he picked to two most opposed subgenres so that he could keep the different types of story he wanted to write distinct.

The more detective fiction I’ve read since first encountering Poe’s “crime stories” has made rereading those five in particular very instructive.  He walks a line of pulp madness sometimes with killer orang-utans and bodies springing out of wine crates (if there’s a box in a Poe story, it contains a body)

SPOILER WARNING, surely? 😊

…but the depth of association you can draw with the genius amateur, the foiled presumptions of a first glance, and just about every other aspect of detective fiction that GAD built on and raised to a near art-form is fairly amazing when you consider the (relatively) brief number of words with which Poe sowed these seeds.

To conclude our dissection of Poe and his influence on the mystery genre, I would just like to add that there is at least one other work by Poe that shows his development of ratiocination, though it is even more tenuous in its connection to the mystery genre, so I didn’t think there would be any point in taking a closer look at it. Also, I didn’t want to put too great a strain on you. 😊 For completeness’ sake, any reader who wants to delve further would do well to read ‘Maelzel’s Chess Player’, an essay on the chess playing automaton, written in 1836.

Oh, bloody hell…

raven

And that, dear reader, marks the end of this exploration of Poe’s tales of ratiocination.  Hopefully you’ve found something in these (admittedly rather long) pieces to enjoy or to get thinking about, and — if you didn’t — at least take comfort in that fact that I hugely enjoyed being able to pick through Poe’s writings, discuss them with so enthusiastic a respondent, and find my own reactions this time around to be much more favourable than I remembered from my last reading.

Next month it’ll be self-published impossible crime fiction on Tuesdays; enjoy celebrating the new year in the meantime!

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