Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 11: No 2) >> An Early Novel of Detection, Marie de Berniere >> Page 10

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Scholarship | 2003
Transcription An Early Novel of Detection, Marie de Berniere

Miriam J. Shillingsburg
University of Indiana, South Bend

Edgar Allan Poe is well known, if not best known, for inventing the
detective story in April 1841 with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (Lits, 126-
127). Poe's formula includes a detective and his partner in ratiocination —a
somewhat slow-witted amateur who must have everything explained to him, who
narrates the story. Usually, but not always, the "locked-room mystery" solves a
murder, as in Poe's story. J-C Vareille has written: "A mystery juxtaposed with a
solution was the basis of the serialized novel; the gradual transformation of the
mystery as it was being solved and, thus, the progressive dissolution of the enigma
was unique to the detective novel" (as quoted by Lits, 127). The first French
detective novel—the first novel "acknowledged as such" was not serialized until
1863 (as quoted by Lits, 127).
Simms, Poe's contemporary, is well known, if not best known, for his
novels of manners (Wimsatt, 159-193). In early 1852 he serialized a long work in
which he synthesized aspects of the novel of manners, contemporary German
Gothicism (Thomas, 135-137) and aspects of Poe's detective formula into a
remarkable precursor of what would become a prevalent theme in modern popular
fiction. The . locked room (often expanded spatially to the "country house" or
resort, or contracted into the locked box or casket) has been well exploited in
popular "suspense" stories by the likes of Agatha Christie, Dashiel Hammett, Elery
Queen, and many others.
Simms's locked room mystery had its genesis in a visit to New Orleans
made by the aspiring young author in February 1826, at which time he attended a
masquerade ball (Kibler, 87; Shillingsburg, SQ 122, 133). It was not until April
1845, however, that Simms used this experience in a work of fiction, a short story
"The Unknown Masque, a Sketch of the Crescent City," bearing superficial
similarities to Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." However, Simms expanded
his story, first into "The Egyptian Masque; a Tale of the Crescent City" (1849),
and then into the novelette Marie de Berniere in 1852 (Guilds and Meriwether,
696-701). He combined the love story, familiar in his many romances, with the
novel of manners and with characteristics of what would become known as the
"locked room" or "howdunit" suspense story. Although reviewed less widely than
Simms volumes usually were, Marie de Berniere was very favorably received in its