Friday, July 08, 2011

Book Review : The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings by Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin 1986) / The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Stories by Edgar Allan Poe (Marshall Cavendish 1986)

Reading “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher” has prompted me to explore the origins of the 19th Century detective novel, and thus I find myself reading not only “Murders in the Rue Morgue” but also the rest of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe with whose work until recently I had been unfamiliar.

Please note the following discussions include descriptions of the ending to the works in question.

Poe’s detective stories feature polymath and master of deductive reasoning C. Auguste Dupin, a recognisable (and acknowledged) prototype for Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, and are related by his companion. Following a gruesome but mystifying murder, Dupin offers his assistance to the Parisian police who are perplexed as to how the murderer of two women in the Rue Morgue could escape from a locked room. In this first story, Poe is feeling his way. Needless to say, Dupin solves the riddle, but the deductions made by him are scarcely credible, the fact that the murderer turns out to be an orang-utan who has cut the woman’s throat in imitation of his master shaving, which may be the first but almost certainly the most ridiculous solution to a murder mystery in the history of the detective fiction.

But the story was a success, and paved the way for M Dupin to bring his acumen to a real-life case. In 1841 New York, a young shop worker, Mary Rogers, was found drowned in the Hudson with foul play suspected. Newspaper reports contain speculation as to the murderer, which Poe considers inaccurate. He therefore transposes the murder to Paris, turns Mary Rogers into Marie Rôget and sets the facts before M. Dupin. The resulting “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” is a curious hybrid. It actually reads quite well, despite a fair degree of tedious points-scoring, as a piece of quasi-journalistic forensic work, but as a work of art it falls short. None of the characters are developed, nothing comes to life. 19th Century sensibilities are such that the fact that Mary Rogers may have died in a botched abortion is only hinted at obliquely. But from a historical perspective the attempt to solve the murder mystery is an interesting application of the latest techniques of detective science.

However “The Purloined Letter”, Poe’s final story to feature Dupin, is undoubtedly one of his finest. Dupin is requested by the Parisian Prefect of Police to help solve a problem. A compromising letter has been obtained by a corrupt minister, and is being used for his advantage. Searches of the minister’s apartment have not uncovered the letter and police are bewildered as to where it can be. Dupin works out that the safest place for the letter is not to hide it, but to store it in plain view of all, and manages to switch the letter with another in order to entrap the minister. Whilst the psychology employed by Dupin may be flawed, there can be no doubt that this is an elegant solution to the problem, and one that has been reused in a modern Sherlock Holmes TV episode.

Poe turns out to be a pioneer in many ways. His characters journey to the moon by balloon long before Jules Verne. They employ cryptography. He suggested a solution to Olbers’ paradox (if there is an infinite number of stars, why is the night sky not white?). His poetry pushed the boundaries of traditional verse forms. However, he is best remembered now for his gothic short stories, all exquisitely written and some still very creepy.

Looking at the stories as a whole, they are masterpieces of tone. Generally they will build slowly to a rapidly delivered surprising dénouement. Characters rarely develop, relationships are either one-dimensional or warped in some way, but it is as a master of atmosphere that his reputation is based. “The Fall of the House of Usher” commences on “a dull, dark, and soundless day” “when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” over “a singularly dreary tract of country” when “the melancholy House of Usher” came into view causing “a sense of insufferable gloom” to pervade the narrator’s spirit. Two sentences in, and you have a picture that has been replicated by directors of horror films ever since, and that is repeated, layer upon layer, until the reader is suffocated by the claustrophobia of history that the house itself provokes.

In “Ligeia”, the layers are of another kind – a description of the beauty of Ligeia, whose eyes “were even fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes of the tribe of the valley of Nourjahad.” Yet there is “no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion” and a coldness except when “a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion”, and bearing in mind that Ligeia boasts knowledge of “the most abstruse of the boasted erudition of the Academy”, and despite being forewarned of her death, the reader knows that this is not the end of this exquisite story.

Death pervades his writing, but rarely does the blood flow in Poe’s stories – he was one of the first writers to ply his craft at the psychological level. His ability to conjure atmosphere from a couple of words makes him ideally suited to such innovation. Overall his quality can be uneven – some stories are baffling, some ridiculous (see “The Spectacles”, for example), although the quality of his sentences rarely drops, which is remarkable considering that he was often writing to put food on his table. As poet, author, critic and innovator, Poe was one of the most remarkable men of letters of the 19th Century.

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