“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

No, I haven’t given up blogging. I’ve been on a rare vacation and am catching up on the weird fiction readings over at LibraryThing.

Review: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Yes, it’s the story with the razor-wielding orangutan. As I did with my review of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, I’m not going to bother summarizing or reviewing such a well-known story. Rather, I’ll summarize some observations on the tale made by others and talk about some of its oddities.

I’d forgotten that it takes awhile for Poe to get to his story. The first two pages of a 26 page story in the Stephen Peithman annotated version are taken up by Poe discussing the superiority of analysis (its original etymology deriving from disentangling elements) to mere calculation (which derives from combining elements). Analysis, which Dupin is the epitome of, requires reason, imagination, and observation.

This leads to Poe arguing that checkers and whist are games requiring the successful player to have greater intellect than chess. Whist, in particular, he argues, requires skills more applicable to general application in life – observation of players to know when they are bluffing, deducing what they are concealing, and memory – than life. I’m half convinced by this argument. I’m sure there have been some men (and, yes, virtually all the top players are men) who are expert chess players and who have been, as they say, well-integrated socially, but, having recently read a biography of Bobby Fisher, I know that’s not always the case. In any case, I’m, at best, a mediocre player of all three games, so I can’t claim any great personal insight.

Literary critic John C. Cawelti maintained Dupin is a sort of gothic villain. He’s brilliant, loves the night, and is involved in elaborate stratagems. Peithman suggests that Poe tamed the Gothic villain with rationality. He also notes that the narrator seems under the spell of Dupin in the same way the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is under the influence of Roderick Usher.

There is an odd bit about the dwellings of Dupin and our narrator:

a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire.

I wonder if any of the many Dupin pastiches ever investigated those superstitions and the history of the building in “a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain”.

The story itself is, of course, the first detective story and the influence on Doyle is obvious. Dupin is even name checked Dupin in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. There are the disparaging comments on the official police. The climax of the story is in Dupin’s apartment.

Poe’s development of the detective story rested on three tenets.

First, the character of the detective is paramount. T. S. Eliot remarked that the pleasure of the detective is “following the workings of one keen mind”.

Second, Poe realized the importance of interposing a narrator between the detective and the reader. The narrator must be as mystified as the reader. In his “Charles Dickens” essay, Poe stated,

The design of mystery . . . being once determined by the author, it becomes imperative, first, that no undue or inartistical means be employed to conceal the secret of the plot; and secondly, that the secret be well kept.

Finally, Poe established the detective story must be focused not on the mystery but the process of its solution.

The inductive brilliance of Dupin may have been inspired, Peithman says, by Voltaire’s Zadig which has a bit with the characteristics of a dog being reasoned from its tracks. Poe seems to have been inspired by the dubious Memoirs of Eugene Francois Vidocq, an ex-criminal turned police detective who doesn’t seem to have given up his criminal ways since he put many an ex-criminal on the police payroll. He also founded the world’s private detective agency. Dupin says Vidoq was a “good guesser”.

Daniel Hofmann’s Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe devotes a whole chapter, “Disentanglements”, to Dupin. He makes the startling, but defensible, observation that the story is of a piece with Poe’s horror stories and poems like “Ulalume” and “Annabel Lee”.

The theme is essentially the same; it is the tone which is different. Poe’s versions of this theme alternate in tone between the indistinct melancholy of the poems and the terrible, the grotesque, the bizarre in the tales. Both tones manage to excite a strangeness, an ecstasy, in the reader. Terror is an ecstatic state for Poe, as is grief.

Dupin, Hoffman contends, solves his crimes in a pre-conscious state of ecstasy exhibiting rationality, the human quality Poe valued most.

As to that murderous orangutan, Poe may have been inspired by an article, “New Mode of Thieving” from the August 22, 1834 issue of the Ipswich Shrewsbury Chronicle which talked about monkeys being used to burgle residences and a violent encounter between a home owner and one such monkey. There is also a 19th century story about the pet monkey of a barber. Said monkey, like the orangutan in Poe’s story, tries to imitate shaving with disastrous results for one of the barber’s customers. Violent pet simians also show up in a David Humphreys poem, “The Monkey”, and in Sir Walter Scott’s Count Robert of Paris from 1831.

Both Poe and Doyle seem to have thought less of their detective stories than their other works because, for both, the detective story came easy to them, and neither spent a lot of time revising their mystery stories compared to their other work.

In an August 9, 1846 letter to his friend Philip Pendleton Cooke:

You are right about the hair-splitting of my French friend [Dupin]: — that is all done for effect. These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say they are not ingenious — but people think they are more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method … Where is the ingenuity of unravelling a web which you yourself (the author) have woven for the express purpose of unravelling? The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the supposititious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.”


More Poe related reviews are indexed at the Poe page.

2 thoughts on ““The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

  1. jameswharris October 12, 2019 / 10:30 am

    Have you seen the new show on Amazon Prime called Gogal? The first episode involves a detective like Poe’s, and it made me wonder if Gogal was the Russian Poe. I know little of Poe and nothing about Gogal. The show made me want to read and study Gogal, and your review makes me want to read and study Poe.

    • marzaat October 12, 2019 / 12:00 pm

      I’m not sure I’ve read anything by Gogol except “The Nose”. The show looks interesting. I know very little about Gogol other than the names of a few of his titles.

      Some have made the claim that Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was inspired by Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. However, I’ve seen the claim disputed since no one can find the appropriate Russian publication of the Poe story that Dostoyevsky would have read.

      Poe is an interesting character as a person and writer. He was much more versatile than you would think based on his famous stories. And there are the controversies of his life: the marriage to his young cousin, the origin of his problems with alcohol, his “imp of the perverse” which led to self-sabotage, his “humbuggery”, and, of course, his mysterious death.

      Because of my hostility towards Freudian I don’t really talk, in my Poe postings, about the Freudian interpretations of his work. There seems a lot of critical work comparing Dupin to a psychoanalyst.

      If you’re going to read Poe, see if you can pick up a copy of Stephen Peithman’s annotations of Poe.

      And, of course, there’s what I regard as the ultimate Poe loyalty test: reading Eureka. Possibly crank science or a late example of the scientific poem. Some see it as anticipating Edwin Hubble’s cosmological theories.

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