Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday (1809-1849) and I think it would be fun to celebrate it with a reading of one of his little known detective stories, “Thou Art the Man” (1844).
Much praise has been heaped on Poe’s other detective stories: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter” (maybe too much on that last one). Even “The Gold Bug” has its fans. However, despite being praised by one critic as a “trail blazing tour de force,” “Thou Art the Man” doesn’t today get much play in anthologies or the work of scholars.
The tale, though not one of Poe’s best efforts, should be placed at the forefront of any discussion of the creation of modern detective fiction because it is the first comic detective story. When we laugh at Hercule Poirot or Jim Rockford or Stephanie Plum we should tip our collective hat to Poe. Or, in honor of this particular story, drink a glass of Château Margaux as the wine proves to be part of the story’s solution. (Fun fact: a bottle of Margaux in 1844 cost about $3 a bottle at Delmonico’s in NY City).
Finding out what has happened to Mr. Shuttleworthy in this comic mystery sets the game in motion. Or, rather, finding out who done it, for we know that Shuttleworthy is dead, but his body is missing. He was last seen riding his horse to town on business. Two hours later the riderless horse returns with a bullet hole in its chest.
“Thou Art the Man” provides another corrective to the notion that Poe was possessed by the “nightside of the soul.” Just as in his Dupin tales, Poe is less interested here in abnormal psychology than with ratiocinative gameplaying. As is only fair, he provides the reader with every necessary clue to solve the crime along with red herrings, a dastardly relative, and a very early use of ballistics. He also adds the aptly named blowhard Old Charley Goodfellow whose stretches of bathetic and overblown prose are efforts to distract with emotionalism in order to misdirect the investigation. The narrator, not a professional detective, is able to suss out the truth and get the murderer to reveal himself through an amusing stunt.
Although a woman isn’t going to pop out of a cake to wish Poe a happy birthday, the surprise ending of “Thou Art the Man” is the next best thing.
Susan Amper, author of How to Write About Edgar Allan Poe, still mourns the loss of her Nancy Drew collection.