Thursday, December 10, 2009

From Edgar Allen Poe to Jan Burke: How the Genre has changed

All this talk of book recommendations has me thinking about what I read and what I take from those works. Two of my recent reads served to illustrate the expansion and progression of the genre.

Among what I read this week were two stories, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841, available in full text at and Jan Burke’s “Unharmed” (1994, in her collection EIGHTEEN). I discussed each with my students at Pomfret School and pointed to the stark differences between them to illustrate of how the genre has changed in the century-plus since Poe created his famed detective August Dupin.

The comparative assignment is brief (30 or so total pages), and, as writers, we might all do well to read these two. For starters, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is important to our genre because, among other things, it establishes Poe’s Five Rules of Detective Fiction: A crime must occur; a sleuth must possess superior inductive and deductive reasoning skills; the police must be incapable of solving the crime; the author must play fair with the reader by offering logical clues; and the conclusion must provide an explanation of the crime (the who-what-when-where-why questions must be answered).If you haven’t read “Rue Morgue” yet, I won’t give away all the details, but, despite the rules Poe established, many holes in the plot exist. (My students weren’t shy about pointing them out either; they never are). And who am I to argue? An orangutan is the antagonist, and the plot hinges on spring and a broken nail. However, the story also establishes the sidekick and the puzzle game aspects of the mystery.

By contrast, Burke’s “Unharmed” takes Poe’s version of the mystery and flips it on its head. “Unharmed” is written in the first-person voice of what seems to be a murder victim’s ex-lover. The story begins with our speaker pacing in his “cell.” He explains why he is there: The woman in his life, a sympathetic blind character, became too overbearing, too needy. So one day, at a crosswalk, he let her walk into oncoming traffic (or nudged her into the road). The story concludes with a news brief describing the details of the accident, finally stating that the blind woman’s seeing-eye dog was “unharmed.” The students all had that “ah-hah” moment we teachers live for. The cell was not prison but a dog cage—and other “play-fair” clues abounded. The kids loved it.

“But this isn’t a mystery,” one boy said. “We know who did it from the start.”

“Do we?” I ask. “No one in here guessed the speaker was a dog before the end.” Then we went over Poe’s five rules again to see which ones were present even in this “what-if” mystery.

“Look how far the genre has come,” I said, as they smiled and nodded.

Then I reminded them that the first test is at the end of the week.

1 comment:

Jill Edmondson said...

Yes, the genre certainly has changed in many ways, not just the styles (person & voice), or approach (whodunit vs. howdunit & maybe even whydunit), but also in character types.

To me the changes in character types are most interesting. We now have (more than ever before) such a variety of slueths - whether professional or amatuer - and such diversity in demographic backgrounds of the sleuths.

As much as I love seeing grandmothers steep their tea while solving a crime, it's cool that we now have left-handed, one-eyed, gay, Hispanic, Jewish police and professors who own daschunds figuring out whodunit.

I think the only thing that will never change is the need to have some sort of order restored in the end.

Cheers, Jill