Without Edgar Allan Poe, we wouldn't have Sherlock Holmes
When Edgar Allan Poe first introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin, he hit on a winning formula.
Dupin was Sherlock Holmes before Sherlock Holmes. Dupin was a genius detective who first appeared in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," first published in 1841. In that story, two women are dead and only a bloody straight razor, two bags of gold coins and some tufts of hair are found in the room with their bodies. The game's afoot, as Holmes might say. (Poe didn't give Dupin a nifty catchphrase).
Though the roots of the detective story go as far back as Shakespeare, write historians Helena Markovic and Biliana Oklopcic, Poe's tales of rational crime-solving created a genre. His stories, they write, mix crime with a detective narrative. They revolve around solving the puzzle of the "whodunit," inviting readers to try to solve the puzzle too.
The key figure in such a story, then, is the detective. Poe's detective, who also appears in "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter," sets the stage for that character. Dupin is a gentleman of leisure. He has no need to work. Instead, he keeps himself occupied by using "analysis" to help the real police solve crimes. The real police are, of course, absolutely incompetent. They are similar to Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard to Holmes.
Like his literary descendant, Dupin smokes a meerschaum pipe. He is generally eccentric. He's also unnaturally smart and rational, a kind of superhero who uses powers of thinking to accomplish great feats of crime-solving. And the story's narrator, who is literally following the detective around, is his roommate. Dupin's roommate, unlike John Watson, remains a nameless "I" throughout the three stories, although he is equally everyday.
In the Dupin tales, Poe introduced a number of elements. One is the friendly narrator that would remain common to detective stories, write Markovic and Oklopcic.
"The elements Poe invented, such as the reclusive genius detective, his 'ordinary' helper, the impossible crime, the incompetent police force, the armchair detection, the locked room mystery, etc., have become firmly embedded in most mystery novels of today," the historians write.
Even Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock, had to acknowledge Poe's influence.
"Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" he wrote.
Poe's formula appealed in the 19th century. That's because detective stories promised that reasoning could hold the answer to every question. At the same time, with spooky overtones, they appealed to 19th-century readers' preoccupations with the occult.
The detective story, writes Ben MacIntyre for The Times of London, was particularly appealing. It promised that "intellect will triumph, the crook will be confounded by the rational sleuth, science will track down the malefactors and allow honest souls to sleep at night." At the same time, MacIntyre writes, 19th-century anxieties about the Industrial Revolution and new ways of living supported the idea that evil was anonymous and everywhere. These two instincts - "faith in reason and mistrust of appearance" - are what made Victorians love detective stories. That love endures today.