Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Edgar Allan Poe invented the fictional detective in April 1841

The first detective story by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, was published in a magazine 180 years ago this month.

Although Poe himself referred to it as one of his ‘tales of ratiocination’, the work has since been hailed as the first modern detective story.

The first story about amateur
sleuth C Auguste Dupin
Poe’s fictional amateur detective, C Auguste Dupin, solves the savage murder of two women living in a house in the Rue Morgue in Paris, demonstrating many of the traits which were to become literary conventions in stories about subsequent fictional detectives, such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

The creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, praised Dupin as ‘the best detective in fiction’.

The murders in Poe’s first detective story appear to have been committed in a locked room on the fourth floor of an otherwise uninhabited house. Neighbours hearing the agonised screams of the women victims break into the house, but find only two dead bodies and no other person anywhere in the property.

For the very first time, the reader is told that the local police are completely baffled.

The story begins with the unnamed narrator of the story first meeting Dupin when they are both trying to obtain the same rare book.

The two men become friends and decide to share a rented property together in Paris.

The narrator is constantly amazed by Dupin’s brilliance and powers of deduction. In one scene, Dupin is able to work out what his friend is thinking and answer him before he has even asked a question.

When the two men read about the murders in the newspaper, Dupin is immediately interested and gets permission from the police to visit the house and assess the crime scene in the locked room.

From what Dupin observes there he is able to work out what has happened and who is responsible for the murders. He convinces the police to release the man they have mistakenly arrested and finally explains to the narrator how he has solved the mystery from the clues he observed at the crime scene.

Poe wrote his first detective story at the age of 32 and was paid $56 for the publication rights by Graham’s Magazine, based in Philadelphia. It appeared in the April 1841 edition and became the prototype for many future stories featuring fictional detectives.

Poe's narrator technique was taken up by Conan Doyle. His Dr Watson narrated the circumstances surrounding the cases solved by Sherlock Holmes and marvelled at the amazing powers of deduction of the friend with whom he shared rented rooms. The first story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887.

Captain Hastings began narrating stories about the cases solved by Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, published in 1920.

There were just three Dupin short stories, but the Mystery Writers of America still honour Edgar Allan Poe annually by presenting the Edgar Award for distinguished work in the mystery genre.

Detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers has described the three Dupin stories as ‘almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice.’

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the two other Dupin stories were republished in a single volume by Vintage Classics in 2009. 

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