It is a well-known criticism of William Shakespeare that, despite being universally celebrated for his fresh originality, the man’s work is basically one clich'e after another. Marching through his plays and poems, one finds the most timeworn of expressions: All the world’s a stage. To be or not to be. What’s in a name? A person really has to wonder why the Bard of Avon couldn’t scrape together a more creative turn of phrase than Shylock’s bated breath, the elbow room of King John’s soul, Trinculo’s lament that misery brings strange bedfellows-from foul play to mind’s eye, sorry sight to tower of strength, the truth of the matter is, William Shakespeare was simply grinding out the same trite clich'es that we lesser mortals still wrestle with. He was just very lucky to be the first to get them into print, that’s all.
The same critique, I fear, must be leveled at our own Edgar Allan Poe. The man is credited with being the inventor of crime fiction, but when you look more closely, you find that Poe is just reworking the same old tired ideas the rest of us depend on.
An example? Okay: Some years ago, I’m writing a story about a young woman who is-I freely admit this-a female version of Sherlock Holmes. Now, Holmes, you may know, is an extraordinarily clever analytical mind who solves peculiar crimes and discusses them with a partner who isn’t quite so bright. What does it matter that Edgar Allan Poe also wrote (in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) about an extraordinarily clever analytical mind who solves peculiar crimes and discusses them with a partner who isn’t quite so bright? I mean, how else could you tell this kind of story, really? It doesn’t mean Arthur Conan Doyle was a plagiarist, any more than I am.
So I tell myself this and keep writing my story, and I come up with a solution to one aspect of the crime that revolves around an enigmatic cipher. Which is fine-even Dorothy Sayers has a cipher in one of her stories-except that when I later sit down to read “The Gold-Bug” I see that it, too, contains an enigmatic cipher. Hmm.
Then, a few years later, I’m working on another novel, where the characters use hypnotism to solve a case, and when I finish it, I’m pleased with how clever those characters-and of course, their author-are. Until I find that Poe has used mesmerism as well, in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”
By now, I’m starting to get a little sensitive about old E.A.P. I wonder if there’s some kind of weird linkup between his brain and my laptop, a century and a half apart. It sure would explain a lot. But no, I’m just being paranoid, it’s coincidence.
So I sit down to write a book about a noble family and their idiosyncratic manor house, only to discover that, sure enough, Poe has the same kind of setup in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” But so what, so damned what? The man’s a thief, there’s nothing I can do about it.
However, I decide that, no matter how he’s doing it, I can get around him by writing a book with an absolutely unique central character, a person no one but Laurie King would ever think of. And to make matters really secure, I’ll write it with a pen, not on the laptop. Not that I think there’s anything paranormal going on here, don’t be ridiculous. But just in case… So out trots Brother Erasmus, a holy fool in a modern city, who is surely one of the most quirky, unlikely, singular characters in fiction. Nobody will ever duplicate him.
And then I turn the pages of “The Cask of Amontillado” and find-oh, bugger! The sneaky bastard’s done it again: the man wore motley.
I tell you, Edgar Allan Poe is a blatant and unscrupulous thief of all the best ideas. If he wasn’t dead, we mystery writers would have to band together and start legal proceedings.
I have to say, it gets a person down when everything one writes is tainted with a whiff of the derivative. I’m thinking about moving out of crime fiction for a while since, with Poe in the field, it’s feeling a little crowded. Maybe I’ll write poetry for a change. I’ve even started playing with some nice ideas about this gloomy bird and a lost lover…