Thursday, June 5, 2008

Poe on Barnaby Rudge, proto-murder mystery

Edgar Allan Poe wrote two reviews of Barnaby Rudge in 1841. The first review was of the first few chapters, serialized, the final review of the whole book.

The initial review is a curious thing. Poe is excited to find that Dickens has written a murder mystery. Earlier that year, Poe had published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," often considered, correctly or otherwise, to be the first detective story. So one can understand Poe's interest.

Poe uses his review to use the clues at hand to solve the mystery. Today, his magazine would receive a swarm of angry "Spoiler!" emails. I don't know if Poe's readers thought this was fair game or not. Anyway, Poe correctly identifies the murderer. He proceeds to explain exactly how the story will unfold and how the murderer will be revealed.

Here, Poe is wrong in every detail, sometimes hilariously wrong (the hilarious part is that his predictions are so confident). But he's correct in one sense - the story he describes would be a much better murder mystery. One thing Poe does in his second review, of the complete novel, is to discuss, in detail, and correctly, how the murder plot is botched. The drama of the solution of a 25 year-old murder loses a lot of its impact when inserted into the middle of the Gordon Riots, which engulfed London in flames for a week, and resulted in the deaths of at least 800 people, many by hanging. One more execution in all that bloodshed - well, it's not nothing, but it does not exactly stand out.

In fairness, although Poe regrets the loss of the murder mystery amidst the rioting, he does say that "The riots form a vivid series of pictures never surpassed." He means not just unsurpassed by Dickens, but by anyone.

Poe was a pioneering book reviewer, but I'm not convinced that he is a first-rank critic. Much of the interest in reading Poe, as is the case with the Barnaby Rudge reviews, is to learn about Poe. He reminds me of Virginia Woolf in this way. Her Common Reader essays often reveal as much or more about her ideas about the novel than about the book she is reviewing. I hope this doesn't seem negative - the ideas about ficiton of Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe are worth reading for their own sake.

Poe's reviews are both in the Library of America Essays and Reviews.

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