#604: Little Fictions/Going Home – The Crime Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ (1842)

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Another week, another cornerstone of the detection genre as laid by Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.

If you’ve forgotten, here’s how things stand: Christian who blogs at Mysteries, Short and Sweet is joining me in looking at Poe’s crime stories for my Tuesday posts this month, with things being taken in the following order:

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)

Being as we are nearly 180 years from these being written, spoilers are considered fair game and so please consider yourself warned that we will be getting into specific plot and character details for every single one of these posts.

This week, ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ (1842), which sees the body of the eponymous unfortunate dredged from the River Seine following her disappearance some days previously.  It’s an especially interesting story for two reasons: firstly, the investigations and conclusions of C. Auguste Dupin are drawn exclusively from what is written in the newspapers — no visiting the scene, no speaking to witnesses, this is armchair detection at its most pure — and secondly because Poe took actual press statements from a real-life murder (that of Mary Rogers) and did little more than change a few names and locations to allow him to pontificate on the faulty conclusions that were being made.

Okay, you’re up to date, let’s go…

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Jim: After the level of invention shown in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, I find it interesting that Poe went for such a relatively dull crime this time around – to quote Dupin, “There is nothing peculiarly outre about it”. As a result, this feels more like an attack on lazy thinking than it does a crime story. Do you think it’s right to include it in the same bracket as ‘Rue Morgue’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’ given that there’s no detection, no solution, no clever misdirection?

Christian: Include in what sense? It’s not as innovative as ‘Rue Morgue’, that’s true. Though seeing that ‘Morgue’ was the first story, that’s hardly surprising. I don’t think ‘Purloined Letter’ is much more innovative than this story.  ‘Marie Rogêt’ certainly belongs to the mystery genre, just as much as, if not more than, many modern ”mysteries”.

Jim: I was thinking in the sense that it’s seen as one of his Crime Stories but — in the common parlance that we’ve come to use when referring to the genre — it’s not really; it’s more a speculation on possible alternatives of interpretation, itself full of huge gaps, leaps, and specious reasoning (of which, no doubt, we shall speak later).  There’s the argument it instigated the Armchair Detective, but since he doesn’t really detect anything that’s surely open to interpretation.

Christian: Yeah, sure. I’m usually the one going on and on about what mysteries are, and even more what they are NOT, especially when I start ranting about the modern mystery genre. There is an argument that it’s less a mystery than just a story about a crime, but I think there is enough here to tie it to the thing I like to call a mystery — mainly the Armchair Detective thing that you bring up, with the whole chain of logical reasoning.

Jim: Hell, I think this is easily the most early-2000s of all of Poe’s crime stories.  If stripped of its contemporary language and published in a moody magazine today, this would probably be heralded as the dawn of a new age of crime writing…

Christian: The best thing about this one is that it’s not as ubiquitous as Poe’s other two Dupin stories, so it will probably have some newness to the reader, but I’m not overly fond of the fact that it never really resolves anything. Since Poe was fictionalising the whole thing anyway he might as well have given it a true ending too.   But even though it differs from the two other Dupin stories in that respect, I think it has merit enough to be included as a part of his mystery production.

My own personal take on ‘Marie Rogêt’ is that it is a fine story for someone who loves Ellery Queen Period One. It’s just a long long tirade from Dupin on how to make logical deductions from facts/newspaper reports. If I were to compare this to any other story I’ve read, it would be ‘The Nine Mile Walk’ (1947) by Harry Kemelman, which is one of my top ten stories of all time.

Jim: There’s  a distinct sign of the callowness of the genre – indeed, the absence of the genre – in the way those “logical” deductions are made, however.  One moment Dupin tells us that:

“[I]n general, it is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation — to make a point – than to further the cause of truth.  The latter end is only pursued when it seems coincident with the former.”

And he then goes on to treat everything in the paper as if it is gospel truth, and to tear it down with some equally shaky reasoning (every single ruffian and blackguard in mid-19th century Paris always had a handkerchief about their person?  Really?!) that reeks a little of a reverse straw man argument.  Maybe this is why he couldn’t put his own conclusion on things: he recognised the falsity of his own arguments and the difficulty in them drawing the threads together for a compelling conclusion.

The fact that he tries is to be commended, however, and this is at the start of a genre that doesn’t exitst in any meaningful way.  ‘Rue Morgue’ is essentially nonsense, but it got others thinking about locked room murders – ‘Marie Roget’ is simply pointing the way for The Old Man in the Corner, Nero Wolfe, and doubtless many others I can’t think of at the moment.

Christian: Good points all. I absolutely agree with you that the logic is shaky, in just the same way as the psychology is shaky, as we will return to later. It’s yet another way that this is similar to the EQ stories, which also rely on logic that works as long as you don’t think too much about it.  And yes, I guess it can be argued that this is a precursor to the Armchair Detective. It doesn’t really resolve itself into anything in particular, as you so rightly point out, but the archetype is here.

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Given that, so far as I can tell, Poe uses actual newspaper excerpts about the murder of Mary Rogers in New York several years prior to this story, to what extent do you think that this laid the foundations of GAD in using real life crimes as the basis for plots? The otherworldliness of ‘Rue Morgue’ seems miles away from the social realism of Poe’s contemporaries, and this feels like a more deliberate effort to show how the detection of a criminal is equally as “real” as Dickens’ workhouses… and once real life crime becomes the basis for fiction, it feels as if a whole new branch of literature starts to grow.

Ah, so it really is Poe we should blame for this genre too? 😊 I certainly agree with you that this is a much more down-to-earth, prosaic story than ‘Rue Morgue’. I don’t feel well-read enough on the development of this subgenre to be able to say much on Poe’s influence there.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d speculate that probably someone well-read, like Frederic Dannay, “discovered” Poe’s works again in the GA period, championing them and therefore introducing the idea of the real-life crime reworking to several authors who might otherwise never have come up with the idea, but since I don’t really know the history of the subgenre I could just as easily be talking out of my behind here.

I love the idea that Poe was rediscovered and then claimed by GAD, but there too many classic detection tropes in this for it be mere coincidence.  There’s an early example of the Birlstone Gambit/false corpse in the claim some voice that “the corpse found in the Seine was that of some other unfortunate”, early scientific detection in the discussion of the putrification of corpses and their consequent buoyancy, the Crofts-style dissertation on the rending of fabric to direct us towards interpretation of physical clues, the Genius Amateur showing up the easy, lazy conclusions of the figures of authority…it’s a virtual textbook on early classic detective fiction, and fascinating for anyone interested in the history of the genre.

Again I think you’ve hit on some salient points here. You make a good argument about the different tropes of some of the GAD (and earlier!) mysteries (R. Austin Freeman is surely the poster boy of “scientific detection” and I don’t think anyone would call him GA, would they?).

Freeman is possibly a bit early for GAD, you’re right, but the rigorous scientific principles laid down there, and (as I understand it, since I’m — to my shame — yet to read any Freeman) picked up to a slightly lesser extent by the likes of John Rhode/Miles Burton and Arthur Porges (who’s out the other side of GAD, grrr…) are GAD through and through.  That precept of dwelling on what’s actually physically possible is an important one, and perhaps, given some of the conclusions the newspapers excerpts would have us believe the police jump to, one that needed explicit spelling out in order for detective fiction to become a thing.  It’s not detective fiction if no-one observes and detects, after all.

Ah, but then we come to those pesky definitions. Are we discussing mystery fiction or detective fiction or something else? As this is the second story in whatever genre we’re talking about, I think it’s simply too early to start talking about such subgenres. Yes, ‘Marie Rogêt’ is probably the precursor of real life fictionalisations and it’s certainly part of whatever we want to call the genre, but can we really start to call this detective fiction yet? (Yeah, I’m aware of what the D in GAD stands for.)

Either way, it’s a very compelling idea that this represents something in fiction that genuinely might not have been tried before.  Which is just as well, because it’s also bloody tedious at times…

Yeah, sure, it’s not a roller-coaster ride type read, more of a leisurely stroll along memory lane. I feel I’m probably a little less bored with the story than you are, but even I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as a first taste of the genre, only to someone who’s already read a lot and wants to understand where the genre comes from. But as I said above, I enjoy it a bit more than the silly ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’.

I find the concept of both equally fascinating.  The dullness of the story, and the loquacity of its telling, in no way detracts from the revolutionary idea it represents of challenging previously-held bastions of truth like newspapers and the police.  That fascination of detail in minutiae whereby you show another person’s interpretation to be incorrect is a beautiful seed from which so much legitimately wonderful detective fiction would grow.

Hm. I think you might be having a too modern opinion on the view of the police here. I am almost 100% sure that the common view of the police round this time was NOT as a “bastion of truth”. In fact, I think the condescension shown by Dupin towards the police was the pervading view, at least in higher social strata. Among the working class I think the view was mainly one of fear.

Yes, you make an excellent point – I’ve failed to consider the context there. 

I do also think it’s fairly revolutionary to not try to staple a solution onto the end.  The idea of being able to challenge what you’re told was, for the time, probably staggering enough.  Forcing your hand by also singling out a guilty party would have perhaps been a step too far — more proof is needed to do that.  Here, Dupin is simply highlighting the folly of the approach taken.  If anything, now I think about it, insisting that his dodgy reasoning here was enough on its own to say that X was the killer would have weakened the influence of this considerably, since it would have drawn us down a route it has no right to take. Poe is at least honest enough to stick to his own remit in that regard.

An interesting point of view, and one I’ll have to mull over a bit. I wonder, though, at calling the second story of a genre revolutionary because it deviates from what came before. 😊

Ha.  Okay, if not deviating, at least it’s not drawing us down a false trail by pretending to be more rigorous than it is.  The hypocrisy would perhaps have resulted in people dismissing it, and who knows where the genre would be now as a result?

I don’t know. Did Poe really have an immediate impact with these stories? I’ve always had the idea that it took a long while before they sort of seeped into the common consciousness. Doyle was definitely aware of Poe’s works, and surely Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens as well, but that’s many, many years after the publication of these tales by Poe. To be honest, I don’t think it would have mattered either way how Poe handled the ending.

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There’s a good seam of psychology in here, which again feels like very fertile ground.  When Poe criticises the newspaper’s observation that Marie Rogêt couldn’t have “passed three blocks without someone having seen her” on the basis that this is a reflection from a public figure “who seldom passes so far as a dozen blocks from his own bureau, without being recognised and accosted” it feels like the seed of Chesterton writing in ‘The Secret of Father Brown’ (1927):

“I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” went on Father Brown, “I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”

That awareness of psychology and situation is key to the construction of GAD and all it represented.

And yet this is the part of GAD that I almost wholly reject, because the authors make it much too easy for themselves with this type of reasoning. Psychology works like this in the story because the author says it is, not because it’s a fact. Father Brown’s reasoning is eyeroll-worthy to me.

But, yes, you’re quite right that it’s a type of reasoning that is widely used in mysteries, and yeah, that means that Poe is the innovator of yet another mystery feature.

Oh, I’m no fan of the “psychology” behind a lot of said reasoning, this just feels more like someone actually reasoning something out — and pointing out how someone else has come to a faulty conclusion — rather than simply, Holmes-style, saying “You’re wrong, it’s this” without deigning to explain why.  The need for a false solution to be compelling and believable from a certain perspective (so that the reader believes it before being shown up) is a very core GAD idea (alas, not one that’s always deployed well, however).

Ah, then we’re seeing more eye to eye here. You’re quite right that it’s better that the detective uses this shaky psychology in their reasoning than not using any reasoning at all, that’s for sure. I’d just like more solid reasoning. 😊

As I said above, the reasoning is shaky at times — that a gang couldn’t have killed her because lots of people could have carried the body without needing to make a hoist…er, what if a gang killed her and then only one person was charged with disposing of the body?  Were the police — “proceeding with vigour if not always with judgement,” as Poe has it — really that backwards?

Well, the actual murder of Mary Rogers did go unsolved…

I’m sure Poe specifically selected those newspaper excerpts that he needed to support the theory he wanted to propose, and so I can only base my own opinion on the case from them, but I think there is one very solid piece of reasoning in ‘Marie Rogêt’, and that is the part about the dark-skinned man who was seen accompanying Marie for a large part of the day. The newspaper reports don’t seem to take this person into account at all, but surely he should have been the most likely suspect?

You’re right, this is an important point; it’s easy to shake this 180 years later and criticise it where it rattles, but in fairness there is some good, solid thinking here.  The fact that the gap between Marie Rogêt’s two disappearances is approximately equal to the length of a Naval posting overseas, plus that:

“[I]t is folly to suppose that the murder…could have been consummated  soon enough to enable her murderers to have thrown the body into the river before midnight.  Those who are guilty of such horrid crimes choose darkness rather than light…”

It’s also key that Poe talks about coincidences and implications — “the increase of probability that the body was that of Marie would not be an increase in ratio merely arithmetical, but one highly geometrical, or accumulative”.  He’s never saying something is definitely the case, merely that a lot of accrued high probabilities (I refer you back to my point about the blackguards and their handkerchiefs) imply certain conclusions.  And again, this is the basis of detective fiction, that each little piece isn’t by itself enough to give the game away, but when taken together guilt seems overwhelming.

And in cases where it isn’t, the killer is often kind enough to confess 😊

Zing!

We’ve returned to the point that the police wasn’t the kind of force back in the mid 1800s that it became during the 20th century. I am fairly certain that in many instances the police were happy to pin a crime on the most convenient person available. To actually investigate a crime to find the actual culprit is a concept that is more modern.

Thank heavens there were so many Genius Amateur Detectives around to help them out, is all I can say…

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As usual, I read this in Swedish, and goodness me does the translator make a meal of things. It’s not the translation itself, that’s actually not bad.  But the way she handles the footnotes is making the whole thing nearly incomprehensible (or perhaps it’s the editor’s fault?).

After reading the Swedish version, I took a look at the original on the net — “original on the net” 🙂 — just to try to make sense of the whole thing.  In the original, the footnotes make sense because they work the way footnotes are intended to work. There’s a number affixed to the word or sentence the note is intended to explain, and then the explanation follows, either at the bottom of the page or at the end of the story.

In the Swedish translation there are still footnote numbers, but instead of presenting the explanation at the bottom of the page or at the end, the explanation follows directly after the footnote number, INSIDE THE TEXT. There is nothing that indicates where it ends. It looks something like this: “mother and daughter lived together at Rue Pavée Saint Andréea = Nassau Street up to the time…”

Yeah, okay, that’s weird…

And the translator/editor has also made the unfathomable choice to include the introduction that I suppose Poe wrote some time after the first publication, but not to include the quotation that starts off the story:

“Es giebt eine Reihe idealischer Begebenheiten, die der Wirklichkeit parallel lauft. Selten fallen sie zusammen. Menschen und zufalle modifieiren gewohulich die idealische Begebenheit, so dass sie unvollkommen erscheint, und ihre Folgen gleichfalls unvollkommen sind. So bei der Reformation; statt des Protestantismus kam das Lutherthum hervor. “

“There are ideal series of events which run parallel with the real ones. They rarely coincide. Men and circumstances generally modify the ideal train of events, so that it seems imperfect, and its consequences are equally imperfect. Thus with the Reformation; instead of Protestantism came Lutheranism.”—Novalis,  Moral Ansichten

And since the quotation is not included in the Swedish text, the footnotes begin with the number 2! This reader re-read the earlier parts about five times just to make sure he didn’t miss the first one.

This is however not the only problem. No, as I said, the Swedish translation includes the introduction by Poe, typeset in a smaller print. Which is all good and fine, except then it also includes the first two paragraphs of the actual short story in this same smaller print, before going to a normal size with the third paragraph. This also has the unintended consequence of making the reader believe that the first two paragraphs — Poe’s introduction — and the following two paragraphs have the same narrator, which they plainly don’t. The introduction is by Poe, while the following two paragraphs are by Dupin’s unnamed companion.

It’s the biggest mess I’ve ever seen.

My version contains the epigraph and Poe’s introduction, but leaves no line break between the introduction and the story, so it seems as if Poe is still narrating when the story begins.  I had to double-check, too.  And the first footnote in mine – at the bottom of the page, where they should be – is a footnote about the footnotes, apparently added by the editors of this edition. 

It’s all very confusing, and for such an influential piece of work you feel it’s been rather poorly treated in modern editions.

Here’s a link to the so-called original that I compared my Swedish translation with.  The part that I refer to as Poe’s introduction seems to be the same thing you call the “footnote about the footnotes”. At the link above it’s treated as footnote 1. In the Swedish translation it is used as an introductory part to the whole story, written in smaller text. This introduction is then followed by the first two paragraphs from the actual story, from “There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers…” to “…the late murder of Mary Cecila Rogers, at New York.” in the same small print. Then, from the third paragraph of the story, beginning “When, in an article entitled…”, it reverts to a normal text size, indicating that this is where the story actually begins.

And I completely agree that such an influential text should be treated with more respect.

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Like the story itself, there’s a lot to get into here: the use of wider contexts in the world at large — Naval postings, handkerchiefs — that don’t need to be introduced by the author for their fictional milieu is possibly the thing I took away from this most.  But what say you?  Should Poe have ‘solved’ his version?  Was he too caught up in his own inconclusive tales of imagination?  And why do these influential texts often get treated so poorly in modern editions?

Let’s have at it…

10 thoughts on “#604: Little Fictions/Going Home – The Crime Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘The Mystery of Marie Rogêt’ (1842)

  1. According to Dorothy L. Sayers, Poe actually did give a solution to the crime originally, but it could not be published for legal reasons. (In terms of the actual death of Mary Rogers, Poe’s solution was probably wrong – most modern commentators think Rogers died as a result of a failed abortion.)

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    • This…is fascinating. The obvious question is then whether there’s any evidence that Sayers was correct, and if we’re ever likely to see Poe’s own conclusion to this matter.

      It would sort of male sense, if he tried to tie things together and had to rip it out, that things drift to such an unsatisfying finish here.

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    • The Wikipedia page on Marie Roget doesn’t say anything about this. Only that the third and final part of Poe’s publication was delayed because of findings of the police in the real case – indicating, as you say, that she died from a failed abortion. But Poe just made adjustments to his story to include suggestions of this solution. And before it’s next publication, three years later, Poe had rewritten the story a bit more, making it seem as though this was the solution he’d had in mind from the beginning.

      One has to wonder which versions we’ve read – as the post above indicates, I read it first in Swedish, then in the English one linked above…

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      • Wait, so Poe wrote a version of this wherein Dupin concluded that Marie dies from a failed abortion?

        I’m sort of interested as to whether we read the same version, but having fought through it once I have no particular desire to go back and seek out any points of divergence. Nothing personal, you understand…

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        • That’s what Wikipedia says, at any rate. I checked more thoroughly now, and the version I have in Swedish corresponds to the one linked above, with the single exception of the last two paragraphs, which are not in the Swedish text. However, there’s nothing there that hints at an abortion, from what I can see.

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          • No, I’d have remembered any such conclusion in my version, too. Indeed, we would have had a long conversation about the old “we think it’s X but it turns out to be Y” trope — possibly one of the riskiest ventures in the whole of detective fiction. Thankfully, we were saved that experience.

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  2. And since I visited Wikipedia, I might as well add this quotation from Howard Haycraft on the story:
    It might better be called an essay than a story. As an essay, it is an able if tedious exercise in reasoning. As a story, it scarcely exists. It has no life-blood. The characters neither move nor speak…. Only a professional student of analytics or an inveterate devotee of criminology can read it with any degree of unfeigned interest

    Great minds, and all that.

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  3. Two small, rather insignificant points: a) I checked, and you’re slightly misquoting Poe: ““There is nothing peculiarly outre about it”… that would be “outré”, with an accent aigu; “outre” just means “apart from” or “other than”. I mean, you bothered with the accent circonflexe in Marie Rogêt’s name, so…
    b) The Nine Mile Walk, woo-hoo! Also in my personal top ten, Christian. Thanks for mentioning it!
    That’s all. Thanks for bearing with me. Carry on!

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  4. Pingback: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt by Edgar Allan Poe – Mysteries Ahoy!

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