Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe

Pioneering and perplexing
Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allen Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered by many literary scholars to be the first modern detective story. Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, the star of this story, is often cited as an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and pretty much every other fictional sleuth who followed him. When reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” that influence becomes blatantly obvious. The narrator befriends a brilliant criminal scientist and becomes his sidekick. The two share an apartment that also serves as their laboratory and office, where clients and persons of interest come to call. Dupin monitors the crime pages of the newspapers, occasionally offering his services to the police. He frequently astounds his friend with displays of his prodigious reasoning faculties and likes to keep his theories to himself until the big reveal at the end. Since the plot devices established here by Poe pretty much set the template for thousands of detective stories to follow, there is certainly no doubt that the genre owes him a great debt. The amazing thing about “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is that, despite the myriad mysteries to which we have been exposed in literature and film over the past 175 years, this one still comes across as an exceptionally smart, surprising, and satisfying specimen of the genre.

That’s not to say Poe got everything right on the first try. Though this story may have laid the foundation for all mystery narratives to come, there were still some kinks that needed working out. Poe opens the story with a boring exposition that likens the art of detection to a game of cards. This is followed by a scene where Dupin rather farfetchedly reads his companion’s mind, then offers a somewhat half-baked explanation of how he performed this feat. Next, as the sleuth and his friend dive into the newspapers, the text takes the form of a series of dry, detail-laden newspaper articles. Considering a brutal murder has been committed, this is all rather surprisingly dull. It isn’t until about halfway through the story, when Dupin visits the crime scene, that things really start to pick up and Poe’s brilliance shines.

In a fourth-floor apartment in the Rue Morgue, two women have been murdered and mutilated. Poe sets up two fundamental questions that need to be answered in order to solve the crime. How did the killer enter and exit the room where the killings took place? And what is the meaning of the mysterious voices that were heard by the neighbors and passers-by? After applying his powers of ratiocination to the case, Dupin unravels these enigmas and reveals his ingenious solution to the puzzling crime. If you’ve managed to make it through the past 175 years without hearing the secret to this story, you will be delightfully shocked when you discover it. Even the 21st-century reader can’t help but admire Poe for his audacity. The brutal violence of the tale is grisly by today’s standards; one can only imagine how startling it must have been to readers of the 1840s.

Though the first half of the story feels a tad bit rickety with age, overall “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” has stood the test of time well and measures up favorably to the vast majority of the detective fiction that has been produced since. Poe only wrote two other Dupin stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.” It is a pity he didn’t pen a few more. If he had seen the potential for a detective fiction franchise that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle capitalized upon, perhaps Dupin, rather than Holmes, would be the iconic household name in literary sleuths.
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