Edgar Allen Poe’s detective stories

During Poe’s short, miserable life (1809-49) he struggled to make a living from writing in a wide range of genres: poems, tales of fantasy and horror, an adventure novel, lots of essays, criticism and piles of ephemeral journalism.

Not much of it was recognised or rewarded in his lifetime, but many of the stories grew in fame and influence in the decades after his death. Now he is predominantly remembered as author of the ballad poem The Raven, and of a series of disturbing, macabre and fantastical Gothic short stories. The Viking Portable Poe divides these into Tales of Fantasy, Tales of Terror, Tales of Death, Tales of Revenge and Murder – which gives a good flavour of the man.

But Poe also wrote three detective stories (classified here as Tales of Mystery and Ratiocination) and most historians of the genre now consider that these more or less founded the entire tradition.

  • 1841 The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • 1843 The Mystery of Marie Rogêt
  • 1845 The Purloined Letter

Poe himself referred to them as ‘tales of ratiocination’. Merriam-Webster defines ratiocination as ‘the process of exact thinking; a reasoned train of thought’ and in these three stories Poe is more interested in the workings of the mind – the hyperanalytical mind of his hero Auguste Dupin – than in plot as such. All three lean more towards essays than stories, with long excursions into the workings of the mind, pure reason v practical reason, the normal v the abnormal mind etc etc.

Certainly in the first two there is a murder – and then Poe’s creation, the French philosopher Auguste Dupin, uses texts and one visit to the murder scene / in the second story, texts from newspapers and from the police alone – to piece together the course of events. That’s it. There are no subsequent events, no further puzzling discoveries, let alone a chase or race against time to find the murderer.

Just one clever analytical mind sifting the evidence presented in texts to arrive at a theory and witnessed by his more or less passive sidekick, the unnamed narrator.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)

introduced the first fictional detective in English, the eccentric and brilliant C. Auguste Dupin, an impoverished Bohemian intellectual with esoteric and occult tastes, one of which is analysing crimes. In this medium length short story Poe is credited with inventing the main tropes of the detective story which have characterised it ever since.

In the 1945 edition of Poe I have, the American critic Philip van Doren Stern wrote that Poe was painfully aware throughout his life both of his intellectual superiority and of his relative failure to establish it. Hence one of the most characteristic aspects of his prose is a tiresome straining to impress. Rider Haggard, Louis Stevenson and Conan Doyle were not intellectuals. They knew their audience, their reading market in the 1880s, and they knew the importance of getting a plot ripping along on page one and then freshly supplied with incident. It’s a shock to turn to Poe in the 1840s who freights each ‘tale’ with lengthy ‘philosophical’ remarks, thus:

The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension præternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.

The Murders plot is simple. The narrator bumps into Dupin in a bookshop and, both being poor, they decide to take rooms together (cf Holmes and Watson). They share esoteric interests and often go walking the streets of Paris at night. On one occasion Dupin anticipates precisely what the narrator is thinking, from a process of deduction (exactly as Holmes startles Watson on countless occasions 50 years later). One night they read about the murder of two women in the Rue Morgue. They read the account in the papers; Dupin gets the keys to the apartment from a contact in the police so they can go and see it for themselves; based on a detailed survey of the rooms Dupin explains who the murderer must be. He has already placed an advertisement in the papers and, as he finishes explaining his theory to the narrator, they hear footsteps coming up the stairs of the man who confirms all their theories (exactly as countless feet tramp up the stairs at 221b Baker Street to confirm Holmes’s theories). A few days later the correct murderer is apprehended.

This, the ur-detective story, establishes a number of tropes which are to be repeated in thousands of its descendants:

  • there are two protagonists: the brilliant ‘detective’ or analyst, and his (in Poe unnamed) sidekick and admiring chronicler
  • our heroes read about a murder in the papers, the so and so affair
  • the case features a number of impossibilities, such as the room with the corpses in being sealed by doors and windows locked on the inside
  • it presents a number of unusual features – and Dupin points out (as Holmes does) that the unusual is the detective’s best aid
  • there is a puzzling lack of motive ie the gold left on the floor
  • Dupin’s early practice of forensics in taking the exact imprint of the bruises around the murdered woman’s throat
  • the detective’s outsiderness – both to society as a whole, to which Dupin is a down-at-heel Bohemian; and to the official police, whom he holds in cheerful contempt (as will all his descendants)
  • the police, in the form of the Prefect G—, come grovelling to him requesting his help
  • the exotic/colonial origin of the murderer who turns out to come all the way from Borneo – as so many of Conan Doyle’s stories feature murder brought by exotic criminals from far overseas
  • the culprit flushed out and brought to the detective’s rooms by a carefully placed advert in the newspapers (where they originally read about the case)
Poster for the 1932 'adaptation' in which a mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments - ie nothing to do with the story

Poster for the 1932 ‘adaptation’ in which a mad scientist seeks to mingle human blood with that of an ape, and resorts to kidnapping women for his experiments – ie nothing to do with the story

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842)

is Poe’s thinly fictionalised account of the real-life murder of young New Yorker Mary Cecilia Rogers which had caused a media sensation in 1842. Poe sets his fictional version in Dupin’s Paris and gives all the protagonists (and the newspapers whose reports he quotes at length) French names.

This is a deliberate sequel to Morgue. In the story Dupin’s success in the Rue Morgue affair gives him a great reputation with the Paris police, whose chief comes to ask his help a few weeks after the body of the unfortunate young lady is found (cf the bungling Scotland Yard plods Lestrade and Grigson in Holmes). Once he’s left, a) the narrator goes out & procures from the Police the full description of their evidence and theories, then buys every newspaper which has reported it: he summarises all this evidence for Dupin (and for us) and b) Dupin treats the narrator to a long analysis of the various theories proposed by newspapers and police, until he deduces the events and the murderer, viz. Marie was murdered by one man, not a gang, who dragged her body to the river using the torn shreds of her petticoats, stole a boat in which to take the body to mid-river where he dumped it overboard, later tying up the boat at a jetty, later still returning to steal the boat, having realised it could be evidence against him. Find the boat and you find the murderer, Dupin concludes.

It is striking that the entire story really amounts to a piece of practical criticism or close reading of the newspaper accounts. Dupin deconstructs them into individual sentences which he then submits to searching critique and, generally, dismissal. It is not so much an investigation as a reading. Seen from another angle, there is little or no story in the text: it is more an essay, or even a lecture, than a tale.

And the overall affect is disappointing. Dupin’s interpretation isn’t that different from what some newspapers had already suggested. And the 60-page story builds to a strange anti-climax, a note from the narrator inserted into the main text:

[For reasons which we shall not specify, but which to many readers will appear obvious, we have taken the liberty of here omitting, from the MSS. placed in our hands, such portion as details the following up of the apparently slight clew obtained by Dupin. We feel it advisable only to state, in brief, that the result desired was brought to pass; and that the Prefect fulfilled punctually, although with reluctance, the terms of his compact with the Chevalier. ]

Feminism

I am not a feminist, but it is dismaying that the first detective story, and the first real-life murder-turned-into-a-detective-story, both centre on murdered women. I find the 19th century focus on women as especially innocent, especially vulnerable, to be the corollary of the 19th century stifling, repression and exploitation of women, and the murder of women in fiction, drama and opera a rather nauseating epitome of it.

I used to go to opera a lot but gave up because I went to a run of operas which eventually made me sick of watching women die for entertainment: La Boheme, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Carmen, Tosca – watching women die with the suggestion that their murder or suicide was that bit more artistic or entertaining or sensational or aesthetic I eventually found sick and exploitative. And something the same feminist feeling in me is roused by these Poe stories. Luckily the third is the exception, though it still rotates around a woman and her ‘honour’.

The Purloined Letter (1844)

is the third in the Dupin trilogy, the shortest and most focused. Though larded with Dupin’s lectures about the human mind it is noticably more interested in describing the bachelor setup enjoyed by the narrator and Dupin:

At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18–, I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisieme, No. 33, Rue Dunot, Faubourg St. Germain. For one hour at least we had maintained a profound silence; while each, to any casual observer, might have seemed intently and exclusively occupied with the curling eddies of smoke that oppressed the atmosphere of the chamber.

An unscrupulous minister has palmed a compromising letter he found in the Queen’s boudoir (presumably she is having an affair) in order to blackmail her. The Queen employs the Prefect of Police to find and return it without causing a scandal. He has the minister’s apartment searched with fantastic precision and thoroughness but finds nothing and arrives at Dupin’s apartment to implore him to help. A month later he is back still without luck, moaning he would give 50,000 francs to have it. Dupin says, Well make out the check and will give it to you. And hand it over he does, to the amazement of the narrator and G—.

Stripped of fol-de-rol, Dupin explains it was about knowing his man, putting himself into the place, into the mind, of the Minister whereat he quickly realised how he would outwit the obvious hiding places suspected by the police. In fact he was so cunning that he didn’t hide the letter at all – tarnished and readdressed, it was in an open letter holder on his shelves throughout all the police’s searches.

Dupin arranges for a shot to go off in the street during his visit, and as quickly purloins the letter as the Minister originally did himself. Ta da! The theme of the stolen, incriminating letter recurs in the Holmes stories The Second Stain and The Adventure of the Naval Treaty and the arranged distraction in the street features in A Scandal in Bohemia, also about compromising love letters.

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49)

Edgar Allen Poe (1809-49)

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  1. The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949) | Books & Boots

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