Mystery short stories: classics

July 17, 2007 at 7:01 pm (Mystery fiction, Short stories)

poe.jpg Detective fiction first appeared on the literary scene in the guise of the short story. Edgar Allan Poe is widely considered to have founded the genre with his stories featuring C. Auguste Dupin. This French gentleman, for we may assume that he is a gentleman, seems possessed of the longueurs characteristic of minor European nobility and applies himself to solving crimes in an effort to alleviate boredom and find scope for his considerable mental powers. His exploits are narrated by an admiring friend whose name is never revealed. There are three Dupin stories: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.” Of the three, I find “The Purloined Letter” the most accessible, and surprisingly easy to read, given Poe’s usual predilection for ornate prose. It’s an extremely cunning little tale. And by the way, although all three stories are set in Paris, Poe had never himself visited that city.

beautiful-cigar.jpg (“The Mystery of Marie Roget” was based on an actual crime: see The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder by Daniel Stashower, pub. Dutton 2006.)

conandoyle-pic03.jpg Poe’s inspired fictional invention was, of course, further refined and brought to glorious fruition by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fans of these stories – and their name is legion! – all have their particular favorites, thought I believe that critics generally feel that those included in the volume entitled The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are among the best. I agree with that assessment. Small masterpieces like “A Scandal in Bohemia, “ ”The Red-headed League,” and “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” appear in that collection. I’m partial to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band, “ a disturbing tale that makes extremely effective use of the nearly universal aversion to snakes. Mention must also be made, of course, of “Silver Blaze,” found in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, with its famous reference to the dog that did not bark in the night. Sherlockian.Net, a site maintained by Chris Redmond, is an excellent place to go for All Things Holmes & Watson, including full text of the stories. jeremy-brett.jpg (I admit that my feelings toward the stories have been irrevocably influenced by the British television productions starring the incomparable Jeremy Brett, whose portrayal of a Holmes nearly suffocated by ennui that is only occasionally and fitfully relieved by cocaine will probably never be equalled. And then, suddenly – he is a man transformed, with a preternatural glitter in his eyes, when “the Game is afoot, Watson!!”.)

susan-glaspell.jpg Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers,” written in 1917, is in a class by itself, coming as it does from a writer whose other works, mostly plays, have pretty much been consigned to obscurity. It is amazing how this simple tale of hurt and retribution, played out against a bleak Midwestern landscape, has lost none of its power. Glaspell’s justly esteemed story is based on a play she had written previously entitled “Trifles.” Both are based in turn on an actual murder that took place in Iowa in 1900 and which Glaspell, a journalist at the time, covered for the local newspapers. Midnight Assassin: An Unsolved Murder in America’s Heartland by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf, pub. Algonquin Books 2005, tells the story of this crime. ( So… Is this a trend in true crime publishing, this delving into the factual crime behind the fictional crime? ) midnight-assassin.jpg

Another American writer of detective fiction from the turn of the century who has perhaps been unfairly forgotten is Jacques Futrelle. “The Tragedy of the Life Raft” is a great story in and of itself, but it is also eerily prescient: at the age of 37, Futrelle died on board the Titanic.



  1. alias clio said,

    It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that Jeremy Brett is the man who played Freddy in the film version of “My Fair Lady”, singing, “I have often walked down this street before”?

  2. R. B. Stout said,

    You say of Poe’s C. August Dupin, “This French gentleman, for we may assume that he is a gentleman . . .” There is no need to assume: in his second adventure, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” we are told that he is a chevalier, the lowest rank in French nobility.

  3. Roberta Rood said,

    Thank you, R.B. Stout, for that clarification. I admit it’s been a while since I’ve read that story.

    A very long shot, I know, but you don’t happen to be in any way related to Rex Stout?

  4. R. B. Stout said,

    You ask: “A very long shot, I know, but you don’t happen to be in any way related to Rex Stout?”

    You would have lost that bet–my father took the surname of his step-father. But perhaps the name has rubbed off a bit:: my published articles re the “Singular Discovery” of the mysterious “Detroit Manuscript” in 1823 can be found online at

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