Karen Lee Street is the author of Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster (Point Blank Books, 7 April 2016, Hardback £14.99), the first of a trilogy. She is a screenwriter and her publications include Tattoos and Motorcycles, a collection of short stories linked by a crime, and Writing and Selling Crime Film Screenplays. This is her first novel.
WRITING THE DETECTIVES
Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster has two amateur detectives, the highly experienced C. Auguste Dupin, a man the Prefect of the Paris police turns to when a mystery proves too baffling, and Edgar Allan Poe, writer turned reluctant sleuth when he inherits letters that suggest his grandparents are criminals. Of course Edgar Allan Poe invented C. Auguste Dupin, the great ratiocinator who solves “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”, and “The Purloined Letter”, but that doesn’t stop Poe and Dupin from joining forces (in my novel), two men who look startlingly similar, but have quite different characters.
In writing the sleuthing duo in action, I didn’t want Poe to be as passive as the unnamed narrator of his detective stories, a character who merely observes Dupin’s incredible skills of ratiocination. He had to participate in the investigation also. But when working with the amateur detective par excellence, how does one get a look in on the action?
I felt Poe would be too emotionally engaged initially to be usefully objective about the mystery he finds himself in and rather than focus on the evidence, he gets caught up in the desire to prove the innocence of his grandparents. And this desire leaves him completely open to being manipulated by his antagonist.
Dupin’s own personal mission, a subplot in the novel, gave me the opportunity to show the analytical side of Poe, to allow him to use the skills that made him an excellent literary critic and short story writer. The subplot deals with events that left his family in reduced circumstances, and Dupin determined to avenge them. When he is humiliated in an attempt to achieve this, his calm facade crumbles and his analytical skills suffer. Poe then picks up the slack and discovers clues hidden in plain view regarding Dupin’s nemesis.
But I wanted Poe to became more active in his own investigation, to grow beyond attempting to preserve an idealised notion of his family to genuinely trying to find out the truth about them, especially as the consequences of avoiding this might be his own murder. I wasn’t sure how best to do this, so I revisited my book Writing and Selling Crime Film Screenplays and reviewed the general conventions of the amateur detective sub-genre. The sleuthing duo had rigorously examined the evidence delivered to Poe, a box of letters allegedly written by his grandparents that describe their activities as the so-called London Monster who terrorised the ladies of London between 1788 and 1790. Dupin had made extensive use of the ‘tools of his trade’: keen observation, deductive reasoning, objectivity, and expertise in autography, phrenology, and solving intellectual puzzles. I had yet to address one important element, however: interviewing witnesses and suspects.
As the attacks described in the letters had occurred fifty years previously, it was very much a ‘cold case’ and interviewing witnesses hadn’t immediately sprung to mind. I decided that Poe would hope to track down some of the Monster’s youngest victims whereas Dupin would prefer to retreat to the library and scour newspaper accounts from the era. And as Dupin’s cool objectivity is rattled further by his own nemesis, Poe at last takes the lead in investigating his mystery and as he does, discovers uncomfortable truths about his family that further bruise his ego, but may also save his life.