Caite Dolan-Leach is a writer and literary translator. She was born in the Finger Lakes region and is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and the American University in Paris. Dead Letters is her first novel. Here, she speaks on the influence of Poe on her book, and why he is still such a prominent figure in today’s literary world.
In seventh grade, each member of our English class was asked to memorize a poem. Like many of my classmates, I considered some charming, brief entries by Emily Dickinson, or maybe a Shel Silverstein offering. But, being the obnoxious, bored show-off that I was to remain throughout my academic career, I opted instead for something hefty, virtuoso. I memorized all of Poe’s “The Raven,” all eighteen stanzas of it, and I vaguely recall prefacing my recital with an explanation of rhyme scheme and octameter. I was not a wildly popular child. Quite fairly, my English teacher interrupted me after just two or three minutes, rather than the eight or ten it would have taken to reach the final recitation of “nevermore.”
I loved Poe then and I do now, in spite of his glaring hokiness, his self-satisfied cleverness. Without trying to sound too big for my britches, I identify some of his tics and characteristics in my own writing: a fondness for hammy games, manipulative repetition, heavy-handed gothic themes. I don’t know that I set out to write something that would be an homage to the original American gothic, but I’m not very surprised that Dead Letters ended up in his literary territory.
Poe is generally credited with the invention (or maybe more accurately, the introduction to the Western World) of detective fiction; Dupin, the investigating hero of Poe’s trilogy of ratiocination published in the early 1840s, is considered by many to be the first “detective,” a protagonist who logically follows a trail of clues and solves the mystery at the heart of the narrative. This form of fiction has become one of the most widely read and reproduced forms of storytelling in our culture, giving us multiple versions of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s immense best-selling oeuvre, the noir, the whodunit, the inverted detective story and a good many courtroom procedurals. The popularity of TV shows like “Sherlock,” “True Detective,” “House” and “Twin Peaks” (not to mention long-running staples like “Law and Order,” “Murder She Wrote” and various “CSI” spin-offs) all owe their central premises to these early Poe tales, though most of these adaptations insist on notable departures from the classic form that the dour Poe would maybe not have appreciated.
Since detective fiction’s introduction into popular culture, people have been creating and breaking the rules of this endlessly manipulated genre. Stodgy authors have been holding forth on what is and isn’t allowed in detective fiction, citing outrageously classist restrictions (crimes must not be perpetrated by servants and other “menials”– the reader demands a “worth-while” suspect) to inexplicable, racist constraints (“no Chinaman must figure in the story”). And writers of detective fiction have been trashing the rules with gleeful abandon since the beginning.
One such rule forbids twins, and I chose to begin my novel by chucking this statute out the window. As Hitchcock (whose suspenseful films are certainly adjacent to the mysteries that bear Poe’s stamp), and Dostoevsky before him, recognized, the double can become a fascinating device that allows both characters and observers to glimpse nuance through reflection; the twinned image of reader and writer forces us into confrontation with people (writers, characters, imagined others) who are not ourselves.
Beginning Dead Letters from this dislocating blurring of identities, with identical twins, I wanted to place the protagonist, the detective, in confrontation with the perpetrator, the orchestrator of the crime. Ava’s presumed dead twin sister Zelda therefore becomes the detective, guessing at her sister’s actions before she accomplishes them, while also enacting the “crime” that is supposedly at the center of Dead Letters. And Ava, though ostensibly the detective hunting for the clues of her sister’s death or disappearance, is also the slightly dimmer sidekick, always one step behind her brilliant, playful sister, who holds all the keys to unlocking the mystery.
I borrowed mostly from Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” the detective tale that literary theorists have gone through with a fine-toothed comb. Poe ends, rather than begins his tale with a pair of twins, the doomed Greek siblings Atreus and Thyestes. He positions his detective, Dupin, as a doubled version of his rival, the mysterious D – the Moriarty to Dupin’s Holmes, the Zelda to his Ava.
Famed literary theorists have a field-day with “The Purloined Letter,” because the missing/hidden letter and its mysterious contents come to represent communication itself, and the concealed and revealed nature of language. The letter, which is shown to have been hidden in plain sight all along, eventually finds its way to its proper destination – prompting Lacan’s famous declaration that “the letter always arrives at its destination.” Dead Letters suggests that maybe it doesn’t, that sometimes you never find the letter intended for you, that the communication you need to make sense of the story never takes place. Some letters end up in the dead-letter office, to be dealt with (or not) by an indifferent Bartleby, sealed in their envelope and forever undelivered.