Edgar Allen Poe – The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Background to the story
The Murders in the Rue Morgue is sometimes described as the first detective story, and the storey itself is unlike the horror stories with which Edgar Allan Poe is usually associated, apart from the horror of the actual murders. Clearly, Auguste Dupin is a kind of early Sherlock Holmes, with the same knowledge of the world and the same powers of deduction (which he acquired from his reading).
The story takes place in Paris in the year 1839. The narrator makes friends with Auguste Dupin, a poor man with a good family. Both young men share a great love of books and agree to share a small house so that they can read and study together. They spend a lot of their time reading, but they also go for long walks, at night, through the city streets. During these walks, the narrator begins to realise that Dupin has great deduction powers, with the ability to draw conclusions from the smallest of the clues.
The two friends read a newspaper report one day about the murder of a woman and her daughter. The two women were attacked in a large room on the fourth floor of the house. The daughter was killed, pushed up the chimney, and the mother was thrown out of the window. The police, however, found that the windows to the room were all closed, and the door was locked inside with the key. There’s money in the room, but none of it has been taken away, so it doesn’t seem like the reason for the murder was a robbery.
There is more news in the newspaper about the murders the next day and Dupin is clearly interested. It seems that three days before their death, the two women took a lot of money out of the bank and Adolphe Le Bon, a bank clerk, carried it to their home—this is the money found in the room. Interviews with a variety of witnesses are reported, many of whom describe hearing a loud argument. A doctor tells us that the two women’s bodies were badly bruised and that the mother’s throat was cut by a razor. These things, in his opinion, could only have been done by someone very strong.
Adolphe Le Bon is arrested by the police. Le Bon was very helpful to Dupin once and Dupin doesn’t believe he could be a criminal, so he decides to investigate the crime himself. The two friends visit the house, and Dupin explains his thoughts to the narrator during the evening. He points out that because this is a very unusual crime, most people think that it will be very hard to solve, including the police. But in fact, it may be easier to solve, because it is so unusual.
Dupin realises that climbing up the outside of the house and into the window would be possible for a very strong, agile person. It would close behind him if the person then left the house through the window. He also discovers that not a human hand makes the marks on the bodies, the fingers are much too long. Some hair discovered in the hand of the older woman is also not human. The murderer, Dupin thinks, could be an orang-outang. Someone might have brought one of these animals to France and it might have escaped. So Dupin puts an advertisement in the paper saying that an orang-outang has been caught and invites the owner to come and get it.
A sailor arrives at the house and tells the real story to them. Indeed the killer was an orang-outang that the sailor had brought with him to Europe. It escaped, and although he followed it, he was unable to prevent the killings from happening. Adolphe Le Bon is freed when the actual story is told to the police.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue Analysis
Since Poe’s conception of the detective story in the early nineteenth century, the element of the puzzle has frequently been referenced as one of the defining characteristics of the genre. But how far does the component of game-play detract from the value and importance of detective fiction as literature of substance? A genre that panders to its readership’s desire for repeated doses of the typical detective story formula (in Auden’s words, ‘a murder occurs: many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies’ ); is it merely producing tales to be consumed and cast aside like completed crosswords, or is there a deeper meaning beneath the superficial enjoyment of solving a riddle within detective fiction?
In relation to the novel, a puzzle can be defined as ‘a problem designed to test ingenuity or knowledge.’ Many readers and critics are of the opinion that the enjoyment of detective fiction is based on the intellectual exercise of trying to solve the puzzle before the end of the novel, to beat the detective so to speak. Consequently, reader satisfaction is gained at the point of being able to unravel the details of the crime. The importance of reader participation within the puzzle is illustrated by the ‘fair game-play’ format adopted by the majority of detective novelists. For example, the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction during the 1920s and 1930s strictly maintained the belief that any conclusions reached simply by accident or coincidence were extremely unfair to the reader and were to be avoided at all costs. In fact the 1930 Detection Club in Britain swore an oath that logical deduction was the heart of the detective story, clearly rejecting the intervention of the supernatural and other ‘unfair’ explanations of the crime.
‘Detective-fever,’ a phrase coined by Betteredge of The Moonstone best describes the enthusiasm and curiosity experienced when there is a crime to be solved. Such a feeling overcomes numerous characters in the novel, particularly Betteredge, Franklin Blake and Mr Bruff. Whenever new evidence on the missing diamond comes to light, the reader is frequently met with the words ‘What does it mean?’ both from the mouths of various characters and within their own minds. This brings us to the issue of how possible it is for the reader to actually solve the puzzle placed before them. Grella argues that our enjoyment of the detective novel is more concerned with observation of the puzzle rather than active participation. In this respect, the detective is seen as a mastermind who the reader cannot possibly hope to emulate. He states that the reader is fully aware of the dynamics of this relationship and consequently does not aim to demonstrate the detective’s ability, only to marvel at his skills. Grella cites the Ellory Queen stories in order to support this view, the writers of which at one time added a ‘challenge to the reader’ at the very end of the book; however, the solutions were frequently too obscure for any reader to attempt the challenge, let alone find the correct answer. Other examples of the unfathomable puzzle can be found in the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ presents a crime that is almost impossible for the reader to solve until the evidence is listed by Dupin and even then, a solution relies on the reader having a detailed knowledge of different ape species. In such cases, we can evidently class the puzzle as trivial as we can attach little meaning or value to it until the intervention of the detective. Nonetheless, the unsolvable nature of a puzzle does not affect the meaning of the word; a crime that cannot be solved by the majority of readers, in essence, is still a puzzle. This is clarified by the second Oxford English dictionary definition of the word, which refers to a thing that is difficult to understand’ and clearly still encompasses the content found in detective story plots.
Whether we agree with the view that intellectual satisfaction is gained from solving a fictional crime or not, it is clear that such fulfilment is brief, as Auden states: ‘I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. The reader can not hope to remember the intricate plot details presented in the novel and consequently are given little thought after the climax has been reached and the mystery explained. The sheer volume of stories written by writers such as Agatha Christie seems to illustrate the insatiable hunger for such disposable, fleeting entertainment. The trivial nature of the detective puzzle can, therefore, be illustrated by its short-lived grip on the reader and swift expulsion from the reader’s mind once the solution has been offered. To investigate further it is necessary to look at the role of setting and characterisation within the genre.
The setting of the detective novel is dictated largely by the constraints of the puzzle element. In this respect, Auden recognises the necessity of the crime taking place within a closed society so that the reader can eliminate any suspects outside of this sphere. He also notes that the society must also be closely related, to enable all characters to be regarded as suspects. Subsequently, the aristocratic classes of rural society are often used by the detective novelist to easily meet these criteria. Although such setting is not always adhered to in the works of Poe (the sailor of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ is introduced from outside of our sphere of recognition, and only when we are almost certain he is responsible for the two murders), the requirements outlined by Auden are clearly met in The Moonstone where we entirely expect the guilty party to be a character we have already met within an English country house. Ultimately the reader is presented with a puzzle within a vacuum where outside factors and influences are barely mentioned. Collins actively chose to avoid controversy by setting the story of The Moonstone back in time by twenty years, thus avoiding direct association with overt-sympathy for the Indian rebels. However, it is true that both Collins and Poe regularly drew from real-life crimes for creative inspiration, be it in a very objective manner.