#601: Little Fictions/Going Home – The Crime Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)

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Sometimes my Tuesday posts are themed as Little Fictions, wherein I look at short stories; back in May I did a month themed around the origins of my detective fiction obsession called Going Home.  This month it’s a Megazord comprised of both, looking at short stories that formed the origins of detective fiction…and there’s only one place to go for that.

I speak of course, of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, widely agreed as the originator in a mere five short stories of a vast number of the precepts that littered detective fiction and achieved their peak during the Golden Age [precise dates pending…].  And if you’re going to look at short stories in GAD, there’s one authority you need: Christian of Mysteries, Short and Sweet, who has very kindly given up a lot of his time to join me for this month of discussions.  If you want to read along at home, the plan for the month is as follows:

Week 1: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)
Week 2: ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ (1842)
Week 3: ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1844)
Week 4: ‘The Gold Bug’ (1843) and ‘Thou Art the Man’ (1844)
Week 5: ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840), ‘Into the Maelstrom’ (1841), and ‘The Oblong Box’ (1844)

Reading along at home would be advised since, given that these stories are now approaching 180 years of age, we think spoilers are pretty fair game.  We’ll be getting into specifics each week without fail — hence why I thought the timetable above might be helpful — so consider a general spoiler warning in effect for these Tuesday posts this month.  Also, yes, that is more than five stories.  We’ll explain when the time comes.

For the uninitiated or forgetful, the plot of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ sees the sensational and baffling murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter on the top floor of their Paris boarding house: witnesses heard blood-curdling screams, objects being thrown around, and an unidentifiable language being spoken as the women were attacked.  When the locked door of the room was broken down Camille L’Espanaye is found with her throat slit and her body stuffed upside-down up into the room’s chimney, and her mother’s throat was similarly slit and her body has been thrown out of the window into the yard below.  The windows to the room are locked, and there is no sign of the assailant anywhere on the premises.

Cue amateur detective Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin…

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Christian: Let’s first talk about how this fits in with the mystery genre and more specifically with the GAD style mystery. I immediately get the feeling that this story is something new, a break from what had come before. I have read a number of those stories that are often cited as precursors to the mystery genre — Voltaire’s Zadig (1747), Le Fanu’s  Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess (1838), and so on. This is clearly different. Even though it has some features from Poe’s usual Gothic horror genre, it is structured as something we still today would recognise as a typical mystery. There’s an obvious detective character, the author presents some clues for this detective, and he in turn uses those clues to form a conclusion about what happened and who committed the crime. What we don’t get is a plausible solution, or a typical GAD dénouement where the detective reveals all in the final “chapter” — instead Poe just reveals the criminal in the middle of Dupin’s explanations of how he came to his conclusions, following that with a further explanation of the exact circumstances of the murder when the sailor enters the narrative.

Jim: This was published in 1841, which is significantly before my experience of the genre begin — the closest I’ve read to this in the genre is half of The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins and The Killing Needle (1871) by Henry Cauvin (Dickens, I’m going to say, doesn’t count in quite the same way…they’re crime threads in bigger tales, rather than crime tales per se).  It’s fascinating to think that this is something entirely new; even if the precepts of fair-play were still some way off, this is the first step along the road of showing something approaching deduction in fiction.  It’s 79 years from here to the rigour and detail of The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts, and you can see how that would be a revelation after eight decades of this sort of thing, too.

Christian: I’ve read the Cauvin, but not the Collins (nor the Dickens), so I can’t support (or refute) anything you say about those novels. 😊 What I do think is that if the first part — see the discussion on the structure below — were removed from this story, you’d have what would be recognised as a Sherlock Holmes story here. Yes yes, Poe and Doyle are quite different writers and so the style would tell them apart, but I mean that there is nothing about the mystery story itself that distinguishes a Holmes story from this one. Even though there’s almost 50 years between the two, they are very similar in many aspects.

Then compare say, Holmes with Carr, or even worse, Carr with Colin Dexter, to name a couple of authors who are still firmly ensconced in the main furrow of detective fiction, and just realise how much the genre developed in those 50-year periods compared with this first half century.

Jim: Yeah, that’s an excellent point.  Carr’s possibly not the best example — compare the pinnacle of any genre with someone else and it’s automatically seems like a huge leap — but if your comparison is, say, Poe/Ngaio Marsh/Colin Dexter it almost makes it even more distinctive.

Christian: Sure, that’s just as valid a comparison.  I think what this confirms is how ahead of its time this story was and what an anomaly the three Dupin tales were — because if we read other mystery (related) stories from the period between 1840 and Sherlock Holmes (or even up to three decades after that), it’s apparent that those other stories aren’t fully following in this one’s footsteps. There’s always heaps of melodrama, damsels in distress, ghosts and ghoulies and secret passages everywhere…

Jim: So you have read The Moonstone…!

Christian: When you’ve read one mystery story from that turn of the century, you’ve read them all…and rarely is there the focus on logical reasoning that we have here.  To be honest, I don’t think that really happened until E. C. Bentley and Trent’s Last Case (1913).

Jim: This is a side discussion that we probably shouldn’t get drawn into here, but I always thought that The Valley of Fear (1915) marked something of a sea change in the Holmes canon, with the stories that came after it  — ‘Mazarin Stone’, ‘Three Garridebs’, ‘Thor Bridge’, etc – feeling much more like an effort at detection rather than simple showboating.  So maybe that was Doyle trying to change with the times.

Christian: I think this side discussion is valid — surely we’re trying to pinpoint what effect Poe had on the genre, and in order to do so we need to see when there were other seismic shifts in the genre.

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Moving on to the structure of this short story, which is probably the biggest problem with it (apart from the identity of the killer, of course). MITRM begins with a few pages of the narrator — I suppose this is the same unnamed narrator who is Dupin’s friend, though it could be an omniscient narrator as well —

I think it’s an omniscient narrator; Dupin’s friend seems a bit too dim to speculate so verbosely…

Heh, are you implying that the narrator is more of a Hastings than a Watson? 😊 Either way, someone is discussing (pontificating on, really) the analytical mind and its relation to imagination, mathematics and what-have-you. Today, this bit is entirely superfluous and a complete drag to read. Back when it was written, I guess it was more important in order to establish that this was something different, something that breaks from previous conventions.

It’s the first real formalisation of psychological detection, isn’t it?  “A casual or inadvertent word; the accidental dropping or turning of a card, with the accompanying anxiety or carelessness in regard to its concealment; the counting of the tricks, with the order of their arrangement; embarrassment, hesitation, eagerness or trepidation…”  It’s a trudge to read but very interesting to see this laid out for possibly the first time, even if it could as much be the introduction of a book on poker as easily a detective story.

I will agree that it’s important for historical reasons, but also vow to skip it next time I return to this story again…

Sure, but it frames the tale historically for the modern reader, and you know what I big fan of context being taken into account I am.

The second part is Dupin’s “mind-reading trick” where he explains a whole chain of thoughts in the unnamed narrator’s mind.

love how much this has become a trope of the Genius Detective — it’s not good here, but hot damn it’s amazing when you see it picked up an refined over the centuries (!) since.  Of everything, this is the one fingerprint I am delighted to see Poe has left on the genre.

Well, that and the impossible crime, surely?

Others would have invented that – did, in fact: see Herodotus’ ’Rhadamanthus and the Thief’ from about 440 BC, or that Bible story about the murder with a vanishing knife…

I would argue that impossible situations have been around probably since people started telling stories around their fires at the dawn of man. But to create a mystery, with a logical solution that a detective uses his mind to reach — I think Poe was more or less first to do that.

Yeah, I’ll concede that.  Anyway, we were talking about our Great Detective showing how great he is…

This part is something that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would appropriate wholesale and incorporate into more than one Sherlock Holmes story, and is more entertaining to read, though fairly easy to poke holes in.  But this is definitely where we start to move into what we now recognise as a mystery tale.

Rather like reading Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels and seeing how they more or less relocated Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books, I find the way this is recounted so hilariously similar to Sherlock Holmes, even down to the description of Dupin when he was deducing: “His manner in these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; while his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulant but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation”.  The separation of the detective as an engine would end up being made more explicit, but it’s again a fascinating starting point.

Well, obviously it’s Sherlock Holmes that is similar to this one, not the other way around… But yeah, with this one and Henry Cauvin’s The Killing Needle, I think we know pretty well where Doyle found his inspirations.

The third and final part of TMITRM makes up the bulk of the story and begins with our two main characters reading a newspaper report on the crime, gathering some clues from that report and Dupin deciding to look into the affair since an acquaintance has been taken into custody. The story then moves on to Dupin explaining what conclusions he has already reached and ends with the sailor visiting them in their apartment, confirming Dupin’s conclusions and explaining the few things that remain to explain. This part is also entirely recognisable as a mystery story.   If we compare MITRM to a GAD story there are some things that you would expect from the latter that are not present here — mainly I think it’s the structure of the thing where the explanation comes in two parts where the first part already reveals the culprit, without explaining exactly how the whole thing worked, but on the other hand there are definitely some examples from the GAD era where this happens as well.

This is were the detective story would go on to improve massively — it feels like Poe, come the revelation of his killer, knows that no-one is going to buy the orang-utan and so he has to drop that in and then, a posteriori, go back and show how it being an orang-utan fits the data rather than how the data leads to an orang-utan.  Credit for doing something unexpected, though, and I think that at the time the reader of such a new tale would need a little while to get used to the idea of a murderous ape.  And, yes, there’s an aspect of those GAD stories that give you the solution halfway through before spinning off into another mystery or some unresolved element of the ‘answer’ provided (cf. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) by Dorothy L. Sayers, or The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry).

Yeah, you’re quite right. But I suppose it’s only right that Poe didn’t get everything right already in this very first story… He’s already enough of an innovator, if he’d’ve got all those things correct as well, who would have wanted to continue with this genre then?

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I want to mention the mystery itself and how it’s handled in the story. Here’s what I wrote in my blog’s infant days when I talked about this specific story:

Okay, the solution here is ludicrous and stupid. (“Ook”, agrees the Discworld librarian.) The explanation of the language clue only works if you don’t actually think it through – how on earth can any rational person mistake an ape’s utterings for language X/Y/Z? Apart from that there’s a fair paucity of clues — there is a discussion about the murderer’s strength and so on. It is also quite obvious that this was written by an author of Gothic horror stories – I’d hazard a guess that Poe actually never had in mind to write a plausible story, rather it was supposed to be another of his shock stories – contrasting the normalcy of Paris and Dupin with the final solution.

I’m not sure I completely agree with my own assessment from back then… I don’t know any more if Poe wanted to contrast the more Gothic elements with the saner elements of Dupin and his Paris intellectualism.

There is the point where Dupin says “The doers of the deed were material and escaped materially”, as if to reassure his readers that this isn’t going to be another….well, I was going to say ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) but that was published after this.  The little treatise which follows that line, in which he lays out how impossible everything seems, is actually quite lovely — as if he’s saying ‘Yup, you’re used to the answer for this sort of thing being ‘ghosts’ — so let’s make the problem even more insoluble and then show you it’s not‘.  I’ve come to appreciate that element of this much more with this reread.

Yeah, you’re probably right — Poe knew what type of stories already existed and knew how groundbreaking his new tale was. He needed to keep the reader on their toes and yet show himself to be aware of their expectations.  As for the clues, I stand by what I wrote. The language clue is hopeless, and I think it’s also handled badly in the story itself.

There was a chance to do something interesting here. One witness thinks the voice could be an Italian, but Alberto Montani, an Italian, says it’s not — they could go around like this, with each witness suggesting a language that another is able to refute.  The dismissal of Asiatic and African languages is staggeringly convenient, but that’s mainly because I think Poe doesn’t want to get into it — would anyone, after all, mistake an ape’s utterings as speech, even in those more credulous times?  I doubt it.  Confusion resulting from a koala’s fingerprints I could believe, but not an orang-utan’s shrieks,

I think your suggestion here would have made the clueing more palatable. Also it would have given some narrative opportunities to Poe instead of this rather rushed thing that we’re getting. Look at the way the people in the newspaper report talk about the events and the way they are described by the unnamed reporter, and also the length of the newspaper story in question… No, it just doesn’t work for me. I know that newspaper reports were very different back then from what we read in papers today, but I just don’t see that any report would be written like that. I think that bit would have worked better if Dupin had interviewed a member of the police who could have reported on the witness statements to him, just as an example.

This is the portion of the detective story for which Brad coined the phrase ‘dragging the Marsh’ — we’re saved interviews, and I’m thankful for that, but you can see that later authors would want to expand on the reporter’s conveniently garrulous style and introduce the witnesses involved so as to widen the suspect pool later on.  We’ve all read a GAD novel where one witness contradicts cast iron evidence in their statement and so is shown to be guilty, but at this early stage I think Poe just wants to cover the basics while throwing sand in our eyes about the language.

On a similar theme, I have a problem with the way time flows in the story. In the end I think it actually does work, but I had to re-read and go back a couple of times to confirm the timing of the events. Because when I first read it, I got the idea that some time had passed between Dupin and the narrator reading the newspaper story and their investigations on Rue Morgue. For example, the police are said to have conducted investigations and ultimately decide to arrest Lebon. The paragraph where they find out that Lebon has been taken into custody is also phrased in a way that makes it seem that this is information that they receive later than the things they’ve learned from the original newspaper report.

But then I was shocked to read that the corpses were still present in the flat when they conducted their search – not even in those unsanitary times could I imagine that dead bodies would be left about like that for any longer stretch of time. When I turned back a few pages I did realise that in fact everything in the story takes place in just one day’s time. The original newspaper report and the paragraph on Lebon’s arrest are in fact taken from the same newspaper.

It’s spread over a couple of days, isn’t it?  The paper from Day 1 (let’s call it) begins ‘Extraordinary Murders’ and then a couple of pages later we’re told “The next day’s paper had these additional particulars” with the depositions of Paulin Dubourg, Pierre Moreau, etc.  Then we’re told that the evening edition of the paper contains a few more details and, since there needs to be time (and light) to examine the scene and get the advert into the next day’s paper surely it’s at least the third day when the sailor come to see them.

Wow, yeah, you’re right. Evening 1 is simply them reading about the murder itself (which took place at 3AM that very day). Day 2 is a new story in the newspaper, the one with all the witness statements, followed by the story on LeBon’s arrest in evening 2’s newspaper. Then the timing is a bit obscure, but I get the impression that Dupin and the narrator investigate the apartment the same evening (they leave the apartment when ”it’s getting dark”). I suppose the evening paper could have arrived in the afternoon perhaps? Giving them enough time to investigate before darkness falls? This is then followed by the finale, which takes place day 3 at dinnertime.  Still, then I’ll return to my appalled thoughts that those corpses were allowed to lie there in the apartment for at least 36 hours.

Also, were orang-utans actually known as vicious and cruel back in the 1800s, as the story tries to indicate with the passage from Cuvier? If so, their reputation has certainly improved a lot since then…

Poe has Dupin say that “The gigantic stature, the prodigious strength and activity, the wild ferocity and the imitative propensities of these mamalia are sufficiently well known to all” which seems a bit hand-wavey to me.  I did some thoroughly unscientific and unrigorous research to see what was written/thought about the orang-utan in the mid-19th century and came up with…nothing.  The solution in this regard reminds me of Strings of Murder (2015) by Oscar de Muriel: Poe needed a physically-capable culprit to perform the acts needed to make the story happen, and I get the impression there’s a note in his private papers that says “Orang-utan” with about fifty-seven question marks around it, and he just went with that because it’s ‘exotic’ and would be difficult to repudiate.

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The locked room warrants a discussion, I feel, because as a setup it’s actually quite good:

“The windows, both of the back and front room, were down and firmly fastened from within…The door leading from the front room into the passage was locked, with the key on the inside… A trap-door on the roof was nailed down securely — did not appear to have been opened for years.”

I even like the idea of the nail head being broken off in the window frame to give the impression that it’s holding the window shut, because it’s introducing that principle of ‘suspect everyone’ that would go on to become so important.  However, I don’t know how I feel about the convenient springs in the widow frames — was that a thing in Paris slum houses? — and it seems absurdly dense for no-one to realise that for Mme. L’Espanaye to be in the courtyard outside she must have been thrown out of the window and so the windows must open.  Sure, the police are painted in dim colours, but this seems a stretch.

Yes, I agree with you on the impossible situation itself. In fact, I think it’s clever enough that Poe couldn’t really solve it to the reader’s satisfaction. You’re quite right that those springs in the windows are awfully convenient, and to be sure, the gendarmes never come off very well in any of the Dupin short stories, but they are well and truly dim for not having spotted them or, as you say, the fact that Mme L’Espanaye is outside…

But the broken nail solution is very good and will be used in future stories by other authors as well.

I wonder to what extent the ’dim police’ stereotype was started with this story, y’know?  If Poe had the case solved by a brilliant young constable, would we, 90 years later, be seeing Superintendent David Hadley run rings around the bounder and upstart Gideon Fell?  I always imagined that the Useless Policeman Archetype came from a general mistrust of a professional, and occasionally wildly corrupt, police force and just built from there.  But is there an argument that Poe started the whole thing himself…?

I think the police were always shown as a bit corrupt, a bit superior and perhaps not the cleverest of person. There’s that Dumas story in Locked Room International’s anthology, doesn’t that feature this archetypal copper? To be honest, there weren’t really ”true” policemen in the world until fairly late in the 1800s.

And, on the subject of the police, I feel like there’s a great dissection of what the puzzle plot would go on to be when Dupin says of the Eugene Francois Vidocq that “he impaired his vision by holding the object too close.  He might see, perhaps, one or two points in unusual clearness, but in so doing he, necessarily, lost sight of the matter as a whole.  Thus there is such a thing as being too profound”.  The puzzle plot would learn to relish in this description: of two or three things making sense, but the pattern overall eluding our detective…and, it is to be hoped, our reader, who would “without educated thought [err] continually by the very intensity of [our] investigations”.  There’s your blueprint, right there.  Now leave it to marinate for 80 years and then have some fun!

I like your quotation of the following ”He might see, perhaps, one or two points in unusual clearness, but in so doing he, necessarily, lost sight of the matter as a whole.”  Now, if there were only a mystery short story by Poe that followed this opinion to its ultimate conclusion… 😉

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Well, that’s us, now over to you.  Did Poe’s use of logic and deduction here really have an influence on the genre he’s generally credited with?  Were there slews of murderous orang-utans swarming the streets in 1840?  How long can one leave a dead body in a Victorian boarding house?  And I must here give a quick shout out to Aidan at Mysteries Ahoy!, whose post on Poe back in February inspire me to take another look at these.

Next week, the unfortunate Marie Rogêt…

10 thoughts on “#601: Little Fictions/Going Home – The Crime Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841)

  1. Only relevant to the first portion of your post, but I couldn’t resist – The Gold Bug is referenced multiple times in one of John Dickson Carr’s novels. I’m almost certain it’s Dark of the Moon.

    Oh, and weren’t you telling me that no modern impossible crime collection is complete without the inclusion of The Murders in the Rue Morgue? 😛

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    • Oh, yeah, I think we can all agree that any editor who thinks “modern impossible crime” and doesn’t immediately jump to “180 year-old killer orang-utan story” shouldn’t be working in the industry.

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        • It is interesting how much of the locked room murder is just a dilution of these essential ingredients. I don’t think I’d say the whole impossible crime subgenre has been a decline, not given the virtuosity with which it has applied itself, but the core “dead body in a locked room” trope is here in full force, it’s difficult to disagree.

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  2. Oooooooook oook ooook ook! Ooook oook oooooook, oooook oook oook oooooook oooooooooooooooook oooook ooook – ooook ooookooookooook ooook EEEEEEEEEEK!!!!!! Ooook oook oook oook ookookoookooookoook; oook ooook, ook ooook ooook ooook oookoookooook?

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  3. It’s interesting to see my musings here on Poe and compare them with what I wrote in the later chapters of this series. I didn’t have much knowledge of Poe’s career when we had this discussion – late summer or early autumn if I remember correctly – and I think it shows. 🙂

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    • I find it interesting, in the conversations we’ve gone on to have, how little context I had for Poe’s work when I first read them. See, this is why everyone should always read everything chronologically.

      But also, yes, people are definitely judging you for your absence of an overview of Poe’s work. The 36 hours since this post went up has been a flurry of deleting rude things people have been posting about your ignorance, I’m sorry to say. Also, they really liked my new haircut, but I didn’t feel I could leave those comments in without context.

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