Up to Snuff #45: Crime Fiction or the Detective Novel and Theory of Probability, How Mathematics May Have Been a Catalyst
By Afua Serwah Osei-Bonsu
Perhaps it was the inclusion of local events that made detective novels popular to the masses. In “Crime Fiction’s” Chapter 3 it says, “Juxtaposing fragmented selections of events from the contemporary world (became) a form of amusement for the mass public.” (Priestman, Crime Fiction, page 41) It may have also been the inclusion of social phenomenon outside the norm like “Experiences of a Lady Detective” in fields where women were just beginning to enter after World War I which may have been radical and was cited as written anonymously. It was also likely very exciting the inclusion of contemporary science and technology in Arthur B. Reeves or in L.T. Meade’s “Stories from the Diary of a Doctor,” or perhaps naturalist works which were found in Arnold Bennett, HG Wells and Arthur Morrison’s “A Child of the Jago.” What often occurred in detective novels was a pulling of events from newspapers which could create a stir when literary parallels current events. The use of the detective short story in magazines likely also contributed to its mass popularity.
Feeding on the media and current events can be interesting. How current events or items in the news get reinvented. In the art world especially, African Art, alot gets pulled from the media to work on when researching the human condition. When you pull from the news in art you can get historical works. The chronology at the front of, “The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction,” was really great in tying in world events with literary events that sprouted soon after. The bibliographies, bios, and chronology are really fantastic to peruse and spend a great deal of time on them-it was nice to see “these elements” and utilize them to better one’s own writing and research.
In “Murder of the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe, early imagery about games leads one to think about the “eliminations” as in chess and within investigations or what was described later as the “Theory of Probabilities.” Poe wrote that, “Coincidences, in general, are great stumbling blocks in the way of the class of thinkers, who have been educated to know nothing of the Theory of Probabilities-that theory to which the most glorious objects of human research are indebted for the most glorious of illustration.” (Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, page 25) Theory of Probabilities may have been the actual foundation for detective, mystery and crime based fiction as well as many “games” (Chess etc.) that were emerging, that may have been based on the pioneering “Murders of the Rue Morgue” publication in 1841, one of the first, or vice a versa. Writers may have become enchanted with deduction as a means of exaltation. There may have been subtle clues like the use of what appeared to be a vintage spelling of clue, “clew,” that was claw-like. There was also the name “Moreau” that suggested, “more water” which could have led one to a sailor or having a water relation. Perhaps the sailor was an “assailant” and clearly evident was an adjacent assailant with a claw. The actual use of the word assailant, later on, may have paid homage to Poe, as a pioneer or perhaps the initiator of this genre. The use of mockery by an ourang-outang of the sailor with a razor was interesting and perhaps Darwinian. The choice of the passive killer was interesting as well as the birth imagery via the “thrusting up a chimney head downward.” The language around the “united vigor of several persons” was beautiful. (Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Pg. 25) In Poe’s Murder of the Rue Morgue, there were undertones that could impact foreign affairs; there was almost a theory of man, his birth, his war and his evolution.
Perhaps it was, in fact, the unity in scholarship that paralleled mathematics to mystery when using the deductive processes like for example an algebraic equation and “solve for x.” Many early writers were in fact scholars and mathematics was in its prime. Areas in mathematics that could relate to the advent of detective novels were finite math, probability and statistics, and algebra. Detective novels were likely also made popular by the male macho, that enjoys exaltation and may find pleasure in the suspense or the chase.
Priestman, Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2004
Poe, Edgar Allan, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Classic Crime Stories, Edited by James Daley, Dover Publications, 2007, Pg. 1-34