The Murders in the Rue Morgue
1841 in Graham's Magazine
First book publication
1845 in collection Tales
Type of publication
Crime, mystery, horror
Approx. 15,000 words
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
The first guessing detective
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is often called the first detective story or the first modern murder mystery. It and the two sequels also featuring amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" and "The Purloined Letter", were instrumental in establishing the genre. Arthur Conan Doyle obviously patterned Sherlock Holmes on Dupin, borrowing not only the protagonist's famous logical method but details of personality (or lack of personality) and personal habits—not to mention the narrator who purports to present th exploits of his brainy, withdrawn friend to the public.
Of Edgar Allan Poe's three detective stories, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is in some ways the least accomplished as a story. It's rather cerebral, with Dupin's philosophy on various topics offered at length. (The first publication of the story in 1841 started with a treatise on phrenology, the theory of the times that held skull shape determined character. This was dropped by Poe in later printings, though it still shows up in some story compilations.)
Page after page is devoted to a verbatim reporting of the newspaper account of the bloody murders and then to Dupin's solving of the case which he donates to the police. It's all presented through narration and dialogue with next to no activity by Dupin apart from armchair detection.
But in its time, the story must have appeared ingenious. It's the first locked-door mystery and the solution is so unusual that even a century and a half later it is hard to think of its equal.
Also brilliantly innovative is Poe's handling of how the answer is delivered, keeping us guessing, at one point making us think the killer is about to be unveiled and then revealing another twist. Old stuff perhaps for today's mystery readers and viewers, but this is the story that first taught writers how to do it.
I sometimes wonder why American writer Poe set his story in Paris, France. He was partial to Old World settings for his horror stories but you'd think a story of science and enlightenment might be at home in United States at the time. Perhaps he felt the French were more open to intellectual treatments of crime and depravity.
Dupin's method of detection has perhaps been the most interesting aspect of the story to readers over the years. It is supposedly a method of logical analysis, by which he can reach incredibly accurate conclusions about many things, including what someone else is thinking at a given moment. Doyle appropriated this and called it deduction.
Poe himself though was skeptical, referring to the "air of method" in such stories. In truth the thought process in these stories is neither analytical nor deductive. At best it may be inductive reasoning, by which a person generalizes upon particulars. At worst, it's inspired guessing. From scanty information come big presumptions which in real life might or might not be true, but in the stories they always turn out to be correct.
What makes this exciting is not that a foolproof method has actually been found by which the mysteries of life can be unravelled, but rather that a mortal being, like Dupin or Holmes, could perform this trick.
"The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1843) follows a generally similar pattern but Poe is not content to repeat his earlier success. This time the police prefect comes calling on Dupin to seek help with a puzzling murder case, the first of hundreds of mysteries by other writers in which the official police consult a private detective. The case is also detailed conflictingly in several newspaper accounts, which Dupin critiques to come up with a lead. It's a "far more intricate case" than Rue Morgue, he notes, and the reader easily gets lost in a welter of inconsistent information that only the intellect of Dupin can parse.
There's also a confusing parallel posed with an actual murder in New York involving a Mary Rogers that supposedly was the basis for this fictional one. Poe plays upon the similarity of the cases, even quoting real American news stories as if they appeared in French publications. In the story he makes a big deal out of the fictional murder coincidentally sharing features with the real one but in a footnote to a later edition he claims the solution in the story is also the solution to the so-far unsolved American case.
The confusion of details and the dry delivery make "Marie Rogêt" the weakest story of the three and it's most often left out of compilations of Poe's work, although at least one mystery writer who learned from it, Dorothy Sayers, considered it the best. There have also been intriguing suggestions, backed by hearsay evidence, that Poe wrote the story on a commission from a wealthy shop owner to divert attention from him as a suspect in the New York murder.
Poe's third and final Dupin mystery, "The Purloined Letter" (1845) again tries something different and again introduced plot devices that have been reproduced by mystery writers ever since—notably in the Sherlock Holmes tale, "A Scandal in Bohemia."
Poe also wrote non-Dupin stories that may be considered early mysteries—especially "The Gold Bug", which introduced the kind of cipher-breaking that other writers, like Doyle again, would adopt for their own detectives.
But it's the Dupin mysteries that practically established the mystery and detective genres, starting with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue". It's interesting to note though that Poe's "detective" is a dilettante, solving the mystery without regard for monetary reward except for the entertainment it affords him and for the righting of a wrong (clearing a falsely accused man). That was also a hallmark in mysteries right into the twentieth century, until professionalism became less frowned upon.
But talented amateurs (and later private investigators) who beat the official police at their own racket have remained a staple of the field. For some reason we have often found it easier to identify with them, however extraordinary they are as personalities.
— Eric McMillan