Sleuthing out a Solution: Edgar Allan Poe and His Crypto-Mysteries
By Susan AmperOctober 7, 2020
On this, the 171st anniversary of his death, Edgar Allan Poe is more popular than ever and more misunderstood.
Mystery writer S. S. Van Dine describes the detective story as a contest, in which the author seeks to “outwit the reader” by presenting a puzzle that the reader is unable to solve, despite being given the requisite clues. In Poe’s time and before, literary contests very much of this sort were common, particularly in the explained gothic, in which mysterious events of a seemingly supernatural origin are later explained in terms of natural causes. A 1794 review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho actually described the novel as a “contest,” between “curiosity on one side, and invention on the other.” Radcliffe, suggested the reviewer, “delights in concealing her plan with the most artificial contrivance, and seems to amuse herself with saying, at every turn and doubling of the story, ‘now you think you have me, but I shall take care to disappoint you.’”
Poe himself discussed the contrivances Charles Dickens employed in Barnaby Rudge (a largely forgotten historical novel) to conceal important plot elements. While installments of the novel were still coming, Poe revealed the device by which readers are tricked into believing Barnaby’s father dead. Poe relished such ruses, making them the main focus of his two reviews of the sprawling novel. He noted “how vast a degree of interest” these gave the story, though probably not, he said, to the “merely general reader.”
Given Poe’s appetite for such machinations, for artifice and ruse in general, mystification and quizzing, hoaxing and diddling, amphigory and secret writing, one would expect him to have written tales along very similar lines. And so he did, I believe, over and over in his so-called tales of terror. “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” and “The Black Cat,” precisely match the design that Poe described of Barnaby Rudge, in which “every point is so arranged as to perplex the reader, and whet his desire for elucidation.” All contain, too, the same sort of dodges Poe dwelled on in his Barnaby Rudge review. For decades readers have groped through the fog of the narrators’ accounts in these tales. For the most part, the anomalies in their accounts have been explained in terms of the narrators’ incomprehension, intellectual blinders, or self-deception. I see them as stratagems of deliberate concealment.
Let me note, however, a monumental departure Poe made from the explained gothic and the mystery stories that have followed. That is in not providing an explanation in the dénouement. Poe argued in his Barnaby Rudge reviews that such explanations inevitably disappoint the reader, because they can never be as thrilling as the unexplained terrors had been. An author’s dark hints of uncertain evil are only praiseworthy, Poe wrote, “where there is no dénouement whatever—where the reader’s imagination is left to clear up the mystery for itself.” “This,” he adds, “is not the design of Mr. Dickens.” But it surely was Poe’s. His mysteries—his real mysteries, not the C. Auguste Dupin tales—eschew both an explanation and a detective, whose presence alone would instantly alert readers that they are dealing with a crime. Because these tales camouflage the very fact that they are crime stories, I call them crypto-mysteries.
And so might you. Read these tales and see if you don’t find that Edgar Allan Poe was and is the true master of mystery.