The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe, 1841

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by Edgar Allan Poe, 1841

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was the first detective story intended as such to be written in the Western world. (Detective stories of a type were produced in China in the early seventh century, in the Ming dynasty, featuring magistrates as investigative officers of the law courts.) Edgar Allen Poe wrote his tale in Philadelphia in March 1841. It was first printed in April 1841 in Graham's Magazine, of which he was the editor. It was translated into French by three different persons from 1846 to 1847, and it attracted the famous Goncourt brothers. They hailed it in their journal for 16 July 1856, recognizing it as a new kind of literature that looked forward to the twentieth century, when the "heart" would give way to the "head," with "love" being replaced by "deductions." The poet Baudelaire was also deeply affected, feeling a "strange commotion" and recognizing Poe as his "spiritual brother."

Despite the artistry of "Murders," no writer picked up on this new subgenre until the 1860s, when the Frenchman Émile Gaboriau produced the novels The Lerouge Affair (1866) and File 113 (1867). He was followed in Ireland by Sheridan Le Fanu, with his novels Wylder's Hand (1864) and Checkmate (1871). By the late 1880s Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1888), made the detective story an established popular form.

Poe was apparently inspired to invent the detective story from learning of the life and the police career of the ex-criminal turned detective François-Eugène Vidocq (1775-1857). Having decided to reform, Vidocq offered his services to the prefect of the Brigade de Sûreté. Hired as a police informer, he organized the plainclothes division in 1811, and soon he became its head. After a spectacular career as a detective, Vidocq retired in 1827, and he produced his Mémoires in 1828-29. In 1838-39 two articles were published in the American Burton's Gentlemen's Magazine titled "Unpublished Passages in the Life of Vidocq," by one J. M. P., Poe having become the editor of the magazine in 1839. In "Murders," however, Poe did not model his detective hero, C. Auguste Dupin, on Vidocq, who was much more physical than intellectual. His model was the distinguished engineer and mathematician François-Pierre-Charles, Baron Dupin (1784-1873), who made significant contributions to differential geometry, and Poe also put himself and his predilections for the problematic and mysterious into his characterization.

Since Poe decided to write a detective story in 1841, his choice of Paris, France, as the locale for his story was a necessity. Paris was the only city in the Western world to have a coherently organized professional police force with a brigade of plainclothes detectives. Having chosen Baron Dupin as the model for C. Auguste, Poe chose the Baron's contemporary, Henri-Joseph Gisquet, to be the model for the Chevalier's competitor, the fictive "G—." Gisquet was the real prefect of the Paris police from 1831 to 1836. In other words Poe's "Murders" takes place during the time of the early July monarchy when Louis-Philippe was the "citizen king" and titled aristocrats were "in" and when one might be living with an American friend. In fact, at this time the Brigade de Sûreté, located in the Petite rue St. Anne, was again, temporarily, being headed by Vidocq, who had been brought out of retirement to cope with the riots of 1832.

As to detectives in London and New York of a professional type, there were none. Although in London there was a detective force called the Bow Street Runners, they were in effect private detectives who demanded private payment before taking a case. The detective division of Scotland Yard (the Metropolitan Police of London), called the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), was not formed until 1842. In New York and elsewhere in the United States there were no professional detectives until 1850, when Allan Pinkerton founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and these were private detectives.

As for Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" as a literary narrative and a work of art, it was a new subgenre of the romance, if by this is meant an adventure story featuring a hero or heroine who is larger than life in the ordinary sense. Set in Paris in the early 1830s, its primary characters are three. The first is the detective hero, a young but impecunious aristocrat, the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin, living in an old mansion in the Faubourg St. Germain, practically a synonym for aristocratic Paris. This area on the Left Bank was shabbier than in the days of its splendor during the eighteenth century. Dupin lives with an American friend, who is unnamed, a visiting lawyer who acts as both discussant and narrator of the tale. Dupin's rival and foil in the effort to solve the mystery of the horrible double murder in a locked room of one Madame L'Espanaye and her unmarried daughter is the prefect of the Paris police, Monsieur G—. Having read in the newspaper of the murders committed on the Right Bank in the St. Roch quarter, at the house in the Rue Morgue (a purely fictional street) said to be between the Rue St. Roch[e] and the Rue [de] Richelieu, Dupin's curiosity is piqued. Being well acquainted with the Prefect G —, he asks his permission to visit the murder house and to inspect the premises, a permission which G—readily grants. The plot of the story, then, concerns Dupin's examination of the premises, his consideration of the testimony of witnesses and the medical examiners, his collection of evidence, and the reasoning by which he arrives at his solution that identifies the murderer and frees the accused but innocent man, Le Bon.

The story begins, however, not with narrative but with dialectic, with a discourse by the narrator—most of it perhaps learned from Dupin—on the nature of the analytical faculty of the mind and its power, together with its relation to mathematics. According to the narrator analysis is "that moral activity which disentangles " and the exercise of this faculty gives the analyst much pleasure. Consequently, he is fond of enigmas, conundrums, hieroglyphics, and like obscurities that challenge his analytical talent and acumen. His solutions and results are brought about "by the very soul and essence of method" and appear intuitive. The narrator then speaks of the faculty of "re-solution" and its relation to mathematics. "Re-solution" has to do with the capability of solution and proof—especially proof by assuming the result and then deducing a valid answer by reversible steps. The narrator suggests that mathematical study might possibly invigorate the faculty of resolution, but he points out that calculation is not in itself analysis.

The narrator now enters into analyses of the social games of chess, draughts (British for checkers), and whist. In these analyses he looks forward 80 to 100 years into the future to anticipate the modern branch of applied mathematics called the theory of games. This theory considers the analysis of any kind of situation that involves two or more persons in a contest of interest and control and that produces a payoff in either profit or loss. Developed out of the theory of probability, the theory of games was first proposed by Émile Borel in 1921. It was not until 1944, however, that the first full treatment of the theory was produced by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern in their treatise Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Using symbols of quantitative operations and the solution of quantitative problems, the narrator intimates, ought not be confounded with the "faculty of analysis," which is strongly psychological and imaginative. It is reserved for those "important undertakings where mind struggles with mind." The truly imaginative person is "never otherwise than analytic." Hence, analysis has a poetics.

The narrator is awestruck by Dupin's "peculiar analytic ability" and the "vivid freshness of his imagination." He then furnishes a prime example of its workings: One night they were strolling down a street near the Palais Royal, the residence of King Louis-Philippe and his queen. Neither man had spoken for 15 minutes when Dupin addressed the narrator, saying, "He is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Variétés." This announcement was the result of Dupin's reading his thoughts by interpreting the narrator's facial expressions and bodily movements as well as by tracing a chain of word associations to their origin. Such thought reading, or lecture de la pénsee, is often referred to as mind reading. It has nothing to do, however, with the modern conception of telepathy or extrasensory perception, since Dupin's thought reading is empirical and depends on his close observation and his "superior acumen." Public performers of thought reading in modern times, such as Dunniger and Kresge, called themselves mentalists. An Italian mentalist, the Chevalier Joseph Pinetti, assisted by his wife, offered a performance of a mind-reading act in Paris in 1784. When Dupin exercises his analytical talent, according to the narrator, he becomes a changed person. His manner becomes "frigid and abstract," and his "eyes and voice" lose their normal qualities. The narrator amuses himself "with the fancy of a double Dupin—the creative [i.e., the synthetic] and the resolvent [i.e., the analytic]." This idea of Dupin's split personality suggests the old concept of der Doppelgänger, or the ghostly counterpart and companion of a person.

The narrator summarizes the newspaper account of the murders in the Rue Morgue. On the night of the crime the neighbors of the murdered women were awakened by their screams. A party gathered in front of the women's house. After gaining forceful entry to it, they rushed up the first flight of stairs, where they heard two voices in contention coming from above. One voice was gruff, the other shrill. When the group got to the top of the second flight of stairs, all was quiet. When the party got into the fourth-floor apartment, everything was in the "wildest disorder." On a chair was a razor "besmeared with blood." On the fireplace hearth were chunks of gray human hair. Mademoiselle L'Espanaye's body was found wedged up the chimney, and examination showed that she had been strangled. Her mother's body had been thrown out the window into the paved yard at the rear of the house, and she had been practically decapitated. Although the apartment was wrecked, nothing seemed to have been stolen. It also appeared that the apartment had been locked, both the doors and windows, from the inside.

Dupin learns that the bank clerk Le Bon has been imprisoned for the murders, and he decides to investigate them. He and his companion visit the scene, where Dupin not only examines the front and rear of the house but also the whole neighborhood. They ascend the stairs to the bedroom where the body of Mademoiselle L'Espanaye had been found. After scrutinizing everything, Dupin asserts that the crime evidences certain peculiarities that make it unique: the murders were an atrocity; they had to be committed by a third party; the voices of the third party were those heard in contention; witnesses agreed that the gruff voice spoke French; none could identify the nationality of the shrill voice, which lacked syllabification; the idea that the bedroom was wholly locked on the inside must be false, for there must have been ingress and egress; and the most likely opening was one of the windows.

When Dupin examines the windows, he finds that they are fastened with hidden springs and also with single nails. But the "window which looked upon the bed" has had its nail severed; it was the one through which the murderer entered and left, closing it in leaving. Dupin collects a tuft of tawny nonhuman hair clutched in the hand of Madame L'Espanaye. He makes a " fac-simile drawing" of the fingernail indentations on the throat of Mademoiselle L'Espanaye and compares them with the size of the human hand; they are not human. In addition, the shrill voice without syllabification cannot be human. Dupin consults the French naturalist's famous Regne Animal (1817) and comes up with a description of an "Ourang-Outang" that matches the hair and fingernail marks he has collected. He concludes that such a beast has done the horrible deed, using as its means of ingress and egress a lightning rod and the nearest shutter at the window. The gruff voice was the owner of the animal, which had evidently escaped while imitating its master in the act of shaving. Having picked up a ribbon tied in a certain knot, Dupin infers that the owner of the beast is a Maltese sailor, who by the words he uttered at the crime scene was an innocent man. Putting an advertisement in the newspaper, Dupin and his companion trap the man, who explains the circumstances of the murders to the police. Le Bon is freed. The animal is captured in the Bois de Boulogne and returned to its owner, who sells it to the Jardin des Plantes. The prefect of police, Monsieur G —, is mortified by Dupin's success.

—Richard P. Benton

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The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe, 1841

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