January Mystery Author Birthdays: Edgar Allan Poe (Father of the Detective Novel) and Patricia Highsmith (Master of the Psychological Thriller)
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Edgar Allan Poe was born one dark and stormy night (Actually, I don’t know if it was dark and stormy. Just seemed appropriate) January 19th, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts, the second child of two actors, Eliza Arnold Hopkins, and David Poe, Jr., who was considered inferior on the stage when compared to his pretty English wife because he had stage fright. Maybe that’s one reason David, who was also remembered as a mean drunk, abandoned his family in 1810, never to be heard from again.
After giving birth to Edgar’s sister in 1810, who was described as “backwards” (most likely intellectually disabled), Eliza Poe died in 1811 at the age of 24 after she started spitting blood probably due to tuberculosis. (This just gets worse and worse.) The three children were split apart. Edgar, only two years old, was fostered by John and Frances Allan in Richmond, Virginia.
Let’s take a break from EAP and switch over to our second January Mystery Author—Patricia Highsmith. SURELY, her story will be happier.
Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995)
Born on January 19th (Hmm. Same birth date as Poe), 1921, in Fort Worth, Texas, Patricia’s parents, Jay Plangman and Mary Coates, divorced ten days before Patricia was born. Mary remarried and the family moved to New York City, but then Mary dumped Patricia off at her grandmother’s back in Fort Worth when she was twelve, the year Patricia called the “saddest” year of her life and that she felt abandoned by her mother, who once told her daughter she tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Wow.
But Patricia got back at her mom by writing with a short story called “The Terrapin” about a young boy who stabs his mother to death after she boils a turtle alive for dinner. And “The Terrapin” was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1963.
Well, that was a total train wreck. Back to Poe.
Poe’s foster family never actually adopted him even when the Allans became extremely wealthy. John Allan flipped between spoiling Edgar and aggressively discipling him (I don’t think this means ‘time-outs’). Poe matriculated to the University of Virginia in 1826, but Poe ended up being kicked out over his gambling debts. (He was 15 years old. How do you have gambling debts at 15 years old?).
His foster family refused to help him, and he had to take odds jobs to support himself, which apparently didn’t work because he decided to join the army in 1827. He didn’t like the army and tried to get out of his five-year contract. His foster father John Allan would only support him if he got an appointment to West Point. Oh, and Edgar Allan Poe published his first book during his time in the army—”Tamerlane and Other Poems”. But Poe didn’t like West Point, either, and, in 1831, he purposely got himself court-martialed so he could leave. (Total facepalm here.)
Since Poe is working my last nerve, let’s see what Patricia Highsmith is up to next.
Some good news! Patricia graduated from Barnard College (yay!), but she couldn’t get a job writing at any of the top-tier New York magazines or publishing houses (boo!). So, she wrote her first novel, “Strangers on a Train” (1950-yay!), a mystery-thriller which was adapted into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951. She never looked back financially and was successful with most of her novels—including the “Talented Mr. Ripley” and four sequels. As for her personal life, she was considered a “lesbian with a misogynistic streak” who really didn’t like women other than as sex partners. She did write a groundbreaking lesbian novel called “The Price of Salt”. Why was it groundbreaking? Because it had a happy ending (HEA).
What about Poe’s sex life?
His first fiancé got married to someone else, so at 27 years old he married his 13-year-old first cousin. Then she died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. (Sound familiar?) Poe turned to alcohol to numb the pain, and dying women became a motif of many of his later works. He got re-engaged to his first fiancé in 1848 but he died before they could marry. He was forty years old. Get this: no one knows his cause of death, but it has variously been speculated, among other things, as epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, or murder.
Back to Patricia one last time.
She loved cats and bred snails. (Gotta have a hobby, right?) In fact, she went to a party once with a head of lettuce and 100 snails in her purse telling everyone they were her companions for the evening. She suffered from depression most of her life and was variously diagnosed with anorexia, chronic anemia, and “female hormone deficiency”. It was lung cancer that finally did her in, but smoking packs and packs of cigarettes will do that to a person. She was 74 years old.
This was traumatic. I’m gonna need a drink. ♣️