In this four-part series, Paste reviews the detection skills of authors who attempted to solve real-life mysteries, and the verdicts are largely grim. We may never know who committed some infamous crimes, but these writers are often guilty of whipping up theories that make real life read like bad fiction.
In this installment, we go back to the origins of the murder mystery with Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the genre with three stories—one of them an attempt to solve a real-life crime. Poe tried to break new ground in criminology by proving you could solve a murder by simply getting really angry at your local newspaper.
The Case of the Purloined Letter to the Editor
“Detective”: Edgar Allan Poe
Resume: Inventor of detective fiction.
Case: The Mary Rogers murder, New York City/New Jersey, 1841.
Solution: A killer sailor in an elopement-gone-wrong.
Verdict: The average Internet forum rant makes more sense.
Working in a New York City tobacco store frequented by famous writers, Mary Rogers became a minor media celebrity for her beauty. She disappeared in 1838, leaving behind a suicide note, only to return amid allegations of a newspaper-sponsored hoax. In 1841, she disappeared again, but this time she turned up dead in the Hudson River, bound, raped and strangled.
Her grief-stricken fiancé said she had gone on a trip; he later committed suicide on the spot where he thought she’d been murdered. Newspapers spun various theories of the crime, from gang violence to a botched abortion.
That same year, Poe published the world’s first detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The killer-orangutan story (spoiler!—sorry) was a hit and its hero, C. Auguste Dupin, a new model of cool rationality.
When the Rogers murder became a media sensation, Poe was eager to test Dupin’s methods on a real case and to make himself a real-life detective hero. Boasting to editors that he’d solved the crime, he wrote The Mystery of Marie Rôget, a thinly-veiled fictionalization of the case set in Paris so the French Dupin could tackle it.
Marie Rôget consists of Poe’s point-by-point responses to actual newspaper articles about the crime, with Dupin serving as his ventriloquist dummy. Virtually indecipherable, the story is less like literature and more of an Internet forum rant, minus the funny cat GIFs.
Poe pokes holes in the main theories, then notes another news report of a stray boat found on the river at the time of the murder. With that, he infers a sailor must be behind the crime and Rogers’ two disappearances were attempts to elope with him.
Poe’s leaky argument amounts to saying that the newspaper articles of the time were extremely untrustworthy—except, miraculously, the one he used as the linchpin to his “solution.” Armchair detection doesn’t get more couch potato-y than that.
On the plus side, he didn’t claim a killer orangutan did it.
Part 1 features Patricia Cornwell’s attempt to identify Jack the Ripper. P.D. James “solves” a murder with a hunch in Part 3, and Arthur Conan Doyle tackles pony-slashing and fairies in Part 4.