Edgar Allan Poe's Influence on
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 1
 

by Drew R. Thomas

 

Edgar Allan Poe: "A Model for All Time"

Arthur Conan Doyle once said that Edgar Allan Poe's stories were "a model for all time."

Just how much Doyle relied on Poe's model when he developed his own contribution to detective, crime, and murder mystery books and stories can readily be seen when one examines the internal evidence of the stories both men wrote.

In A Study in Scarlet,  soon after Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes meet and take up lodgings together, Dr. Watson is trying to figure the somewhat eccentric and enigmatic Holmes out. Watson tells us:

"It is simple enough as you explain it," I said, smiling. "You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories."

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."

A woman reader wrote a scathing letter chastising Doyle for criticising Dupin. Doyle responded, more or less, "I didn't criticize Dupin. Holmes did."

In truth, however,  Doyle was following the model that Poe had created. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Dupin criticized his predecessor, the detective Vidocq:

"Vidocq...was a good guesser, and a persevering man. But, without educated thought, he erred continually by the very intensity of his investigations."

And Doyle didn't stop there. If you were to familiarize yourself with Poe's three stories about his detective -- the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin -- you would readily see how Doyle put to good use the template Poe created (and which Doyle praised so highly).

Other non-Dupin stories by Poe (among them "The Gold Bug") also provide grist for Doyle's fiction mill.

Why, one can simply lay passages out side by side to see at a glance the many points which must have struck Doyle profoundly as he worked at Poe's template, hammering it out at the anvil, so to speak, until he framed it into his own shape and form. Here are some examples which Doyle picked up from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (Tales of Edgar Allan Poe) and applied to his first Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet and his first Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia":

 

Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin
(Edgar Allan Poe)
Mr. Sherlock Holmes
(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

The analyst "makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences." ... "The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe." "...deductions." 

--"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

"Yes, I have a turn both for observation and for deduction. The theories which I have expressed there, and which appear to you to be so chimerical are really extremely practical -- so practical that I depend upon them for my bread and cheese."

--A Study in Scarlet

"Then, how do you know?"

"I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?"

"My dear Holmes," said I, "this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago."

--"A Scandal in Bohemia"

"Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed."

--"A Scandal in Bohemia"

"The Parisian police...are cunning, but no more. There is no method in their proceedings, beyond the method of the moment."

--"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

 "Gregson is the smartest of the Scotland Yarders," my friend remarked; "he and Lestrade are the pick of a bad lot. They are both quick and energetic, but conventional -- shockingly so."

--A Study in Scarlet

"He [Dupin] boasted to me, with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms, and was wont to follow up such assertions by direct and very startling proofs of his intimate knowledge of my own. His manner at these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; while his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulantly but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation. Observing him in these moods, I often dwelt meditatively upon the old philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul, and amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin - the creative and the resolvent."

--"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

"...You mark my words, when this case comes to be cleared up you will find that a woman named Rachel has something to do with it. It's all very well for you to laugh, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. You may be very smart and clever, but the old hound is the best, when all is said and done."

"I really beg your pardon!" said my companion, who had ruffled the little man's temper by bursting into an explosion of laughter. "You certainly have the credit of being the first of us to find this out...."

--A Study in Scarlet

"Let me see -- what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don't open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I'll soon be right."

--A Study in Scarlet

 

Other passages can be compared, as well. In the following example, Dupin had advertised in the newspaper in an attempt attract his quarry -- a man who was certainly involved in the murders but who may have been innocent. (That is to say, it may not have been his intention to murder anyone, but circumstances conspired against him.) Poe writes:

"I am now awaiting," continued he, looking toward the door of our apartment - "I am now awaiting a person who, although perhaps not the perpetrator of these butcheries, must have been in some measure implicated in their perpetration. Of the worst portion of the crimes committed, it is probable that he is innocent. I hope that I am right in this supposition; for upon it I build my expectation of reading the entire riddle. I look for the man here - in this room - every moment. It is true that he may not arrive; but the probability is that he will. Should he come, it will be necessary to detain him. Here are pistols; and we both know how to use them when occasion demands their use."

I took the pistols, scarcely knowing what I did, or believing what I heard, while Dupin went on, very much as if in a soliloquy. I have already spoken of his abstract manner at such times. His discourse was addressed to myself; but his voice, although by no means loud, had that intonation which is commonly employed in speaking to some one at a great distance. His eyes, vacant in expression, regarded only the wall.

--"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

Doyle's version was the following:

"I can understand. There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination; where there is no imagination there is no horror. Have you seen the evening paper?"

"No."

"It gives a fairly good account of the affair. It does not mention the fact that when the man was raised up, a woman's wedding ring fell upon the floor. It is just as well it does not."

"Why?"

"Look at this advertisement," he answered. "I had one sent to every paper this morning immediately after the affair."

He threw the paper across to me and I glanced at the place indicated. It was the first announcement in the "Found" column. "In Brixton Road, this morning," it ran, "a plain gold wedding ring, found in the roadway between the `White Hart' Tavern and Holland Grove. Apply Dr. Watson, 221B, Baker Street, between eight and nine this evening."

"Excuse my using your name," he said. "If I used my own some of these dunderheads would recognize it, and want to meddle in the affair."

"That is all right," I answered. "But supposing anyone applies, I have no ring."

"Oh yes, you have," said he, handing me one. "This will do very well. It is almost a facsimile."

"And who do you expect will answer this advertisement."

"Why, the man in the brown coat -- our florid friend with the square toes. If he does not come himself he will send an accomplice."

"Would he not consider it as too dangerous?"

"Not at all. If my view of the case is correct, and I have every reason to believe that it is, this man would rather risk anything than lose the ring. According to my notion he dropped it while stooping over Drebber's body, and did not miss it at the time. After leaving the house he discovered his loss and hurried back, but found the police already in possession, owing to his own folly in leaving the candle burning. He had to pretend to be drunk in order to allay the suspicions which might have been aroused by his appearance at the gate. Now put yourself in that man's place. On thinking the matter over, it must have occurred to him that it was possible that he had lost the ring in the road after leaving the house. What would he do, then? He would eagerly look out for the evening papers in the hope of seeing it among the articles found. His eye, of course, would light upon this. He would be overjoyed. Why should he fear a trap? There would be no reason in his eyes why the finding of the ring should be connected with the murder. He would come. He will come. You shall see him within an hour?"

"And then?" I asked.

"Oh, you can leave me to deal with him then. Have you any arms?"

"I have my old service revolver and a few cartridges.""You had better clean it and load it. He will be a desperate man, and though I shall take him unawares, it is as well to be ready for anything."

I went to my bedroom and followed his advice.

--A Study in Scarlet

"Poe's Prototype of the Armchair Detective"

The murder of Mary Rogers in New York offered a challenge to Edgar Allan Poe. Since the murder had gone unsolved for a time and was the talk of the town (and newspapers), Poe investigated and tried to solve it himself. But rather than announce his findings, he wrote them as a fictional story, with Dupin solving the case for the police. Although Poe himself visited the scene of the crime to investigate, Dupin solved everything from newspaper accounts alone, and this created the first "armchair detective," which began an entire school of detective fiction. The detective, crime, and murder mystery genre was profoundly influenced by this, and "armchair detectives" from Sherlock Holmes (and his brother Mycroft), through Baroness Orczy's "The Old Man in the Corner" to Rex Stout's "Nero Wolfe" arose.

The Armchair Detective

I suppose the reference to an armchair detective first occurs in the following quote from "The Mystery of Marie Roget":

No one doubted now that the mystery of this murder would be immediately brought to light. But although, in one or two instances, arrests were made which promised elucidation, yet nothing was elicited which could implicate the parties suspected; and they were discharged forthwith. Strange as it may appear, the third week from the discovery of the body had passed, and passed without any light being thrown upon the subject, before even a rumor of the events which had so agitated the public mind, reached the ears of Dupin and myself. Engaged in researches which absorbed our whole attention, it had been nearly a month since either of us had gone abroad, or received a visitor, or more than glanced at the leading political articles in one of the daily papers. The first intelligence of the murder was brought us by G ----, in person. He called upon us early in the afternoon of the thirteenth of July, 18--, and remained with us until late in the night. He had been piqued by the failure of all his endeavors to ferret out the assassins. His reputation - so he said with a peculiarly Parisian air - was at stake. Even his honor was concerned. The eyes of the public were upon him; and there was really no sacrifice which he would not be willing to make for the development of the mystery. He concluded a somewhat droll speech with a compliment upon what he was pleased to term the tact of Dupin, and made him a direct, and certainly a liberal proposition, the precise nature of which I do not feel myself at liberty to disclose, but which has no bearing upon the proper subject of my narrative.

The compliment my friend rebutted as best he could, but the proposition he accepted at once, although its advantages were altogether provisional. This point being settled, the Prefect broke forth at once into explanations of his own views, interspersing them with long comments upon the evidence; of which latter we were not yet in possession. He discoursed much, and beyond doubt, learnedly; while I hazarded an occasional suggestion as the night wore drowsily away. Dupin, sitting steadily in his accustomed arm-chair, was the embodiment of respectful attention. He wore spectacles, during the whole interview; and an occasional signal glance beneath their green glasses, sufficed to convince me that he slept not the less soundly, because silently, throughout the seven or eight leaden-footed hours which immediately preceded the departure of the Prefect.

--"The Mystery of Marie Roget" (Emphasis mine.)

Although Sherlock Holmes himself was not in this mold (at least we don't remember this aspect of him -- we remember Holmes energetically investigating the scene of the crime!). However, Poe's influence even from this aspect should be noted. The following is an early exchange between Holmes and Dr. Watson as their friendship is just beginning. Holmes tells Watson:

"Well, I have a trade of my own. I suppose I am the only one in the world. I'm a consulting detective, if you can understand what that is. Here in London we have lots of Government detectives and lots of private ones. When these fellows are at fault they come to me, and I manage to put them on the right scent. They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able, by the help of my knowledge of the history of crime, to set them straight. There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can't unravel the thousand and first. Lestrade is a well-known detective. He got himself into a fog recently over a forgery case, and that was what brought him here."

"And these other people?"

"They are mostly sent on by private inquiry agencies. They are all people who are in trouble about something, and want a little enlightening. I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee."

"But do you mean to say," I said, "that without leaving your room you can unravel some knot which other men can make nothing of, although they have seen every detail for themselves?"

"Quite so. I have a kind of intuition that way. Now and again a case turns up which is a little more complex. Then I have to bustle about and see things with my own eyes. You see I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully. Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn, are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature...."

--A Study in Scarlet (Emphasis mine.)

Much later, in a different story, Sherlock Holmes tells Watson about his brother Mycroft:

"You wonder," said my companion, "why it is that Mycroft does not use his powers for detective work. He is incapable of it."

"But I thought you said--"

"I said that he was my superior in observation and deduction. If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points which must be gone into before a case could be laid before a judge or jury."

--"The Greek Interpreter" (Emphasis mine.)

Dr. Watson describes Mycroft in the following passage:

Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock's when he was exerting his full powers.

--"The Greek Interpreter" (Emphasis mine.)

Later, Dr. Watson tells us:

We had reached our house in Baker Street while we had been talking. Holmes ascended the stair first, and as he opened the door of our room he gave a start of surprise. Looking over his shoulder, I was equally astonished. His brother Mycroft was sitting smoking in the arm-chair.

"Come in, Sherlock! Come in, sir," said he blandly, smiling at our surprised faces. "You don't expect such energy from me, do you, Sherlock? But somehow this case attracts me."

"How did you get here?"

"I passed you in a hansom."

--"The Greek Interpreter"

In another story, we learn about Mycroft's penchant for remaining in his domain when Dr. Watson tells us and how significant it is when Mycroft actually leaves it. Watson describes the scene:

It was the maid with a telegram. Holmes tore it open and burst out laughing.

"Well, well! What next?" said he. "Brother Mycroft is coming round."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Why not? It is as if you met a tram-car coming down a country lane. Mycroft has his rails and he runs on them. His Pall Mall lodgings, the Diogenes Club, Whitehall--that is his cycle. Once, and only once, he has been here. What upheaval can possibly have derailed him?"

 

--"The Bruce Partington Plans"

Just how momentous the fact that Mycroft would leave his "cycle" is becomes clear in the next few lines. Sherlock Holmes says, "But that Mycroft should break out in this erratic fashion! A planet might as well leave its orbit" ("The Bruce Partington Plans").

One is reminded of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe who would never almost never leave his brownstone. If the blurb on the back cover of a Nero Wolfe book simply says, "Nero Wolfe leaves his brownstone," anyone even remotely acquainted with Wolfe is compelled to buy the book.

And speaking of Nero Wolfe, does not the following description remind one of Stout's description of Wolfe when we first meet him in Fer-de-Lance:

A moment later the tall and portly form of Mycroft Holmes was ushered into the room. Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure, but above this unwieldy frame there was perched a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-gray, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind.

--"The Bruce Partington Plans"

 

The "armchair" theme returns when Dr. Watson tells us, "Mycroft Holmes struggled out of his overcoat and subsided into an armchair" ("The Bruce Partington Plans").

Mycroft himself confirms Sherlock's earlier description as Sherlock asks him:

 "Why do you not solve it yourself, Mycroft? You can see as far as I."

"Possibly, Sherlock. But it is a question of getting details. Give me your details, and from an armchair I will return you an excellent expert opinion. But to run here and run there, to cross-question railway guards, and lie on my face with a lens to my eye--it is not my metier. No, you are the one man who can clear the matter up."

--"The Bruce Partington Plans" (Emphasis mine.)

Note: This article will be continued in "Edgar Allan Poe's Influence on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Part 2."

 

 

 

Gaslight: 1887 | Home