The Murders in the Rue Morgue is less than sixty pages long so why am I devoting an entire post to discussing it? It is because the story is one of the seminal texts in the development of the detective genre, if not the foundational one upon which all others are based.
When I watched the Great Courses lecture series about mystery and suspense fiction at least five or six of the lectures discussed this book. They went into quite some depth, dissecting some of its ideas and construction so I came to it already knowing the solution. This, of course, reduces some of the pleasure of following the case but I think it’s safe to say that regardless of one’s skills at ratiocination, few if any readers could work out its solution for themselves.
The story concerns the grisly murders of a mother and daughter in their Paris home in a locked room on the fourth floor. The mother had her throat cut with a razor and her body was deposited in a yard near their home while the daughter’s corpse is found with a broken neck, stuffed upside down into the chimney.
C. Auguste Dupin decides to investigate the case himself when an acquaintance is accused of the murders. His method is to use the process of ratiocination by which he means the process of unpicking a problem through following a process of observation and making logical deductions.
I think it is important to recognize that Poe intended these stories to be explorations of this process of ratiocination as much as entertainments. They were an intellectual exercise and while few writers today would set out to write tales of ratiocination, this aspect of the story clearly influenced Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. After all, those sequences in which Sherlock lists small details about a person’s appearance and uses them to provide evidence for his observations evoke the idea of ratiocination.
The story begins with the narrator explaining how they made the acquaintance of Dupin and explaining his methods. Once these are established we get a section in which the facts of the case are related similar to in a dossier mystery where we get accounts from a variety of sources. The story concludes with Dupin making a series of statements based on what he sees as the logical conclusions that can be drawn from the various sources.
For the most part the conclusions Dupin reaches are pretty solid although I dispute the interpretation of the clue that relates to a language various witnesses heard spoken. For one thing (taking pains to be as vague as possible here), I find it hard to believe that the witnesses would interpret that information in the way Dupin suggests. Still, I think the deductive process is interesting and I certainly think the explanation given for the murders is as imaginative as it is macabre.
With regards the latter, I should perhaps state that the tone of this story is grisly and horrific. Poe describes the injuries to the two women in detail, painting a very effective picture of the violence of the scene. It is very effective and quite in keeping with Poe’s other works, reading as much as a horrific, penny dreadful-type account than as a detective story.
As with Holmes, Dupin is not a warm person or one to whom the reader is likely to feel close. His brilliance makes him somewhat remote though he forms a firm friendship with a man who will become his biographer. The primary source of interest here is the case and the method by which it will be solved, not the personality of the detective. That being said, I appreciate that he is given something of a personal motivation to look into the murders in addition to the intellectual challenge.
Often when a work is suggested as being an important or landmark one there can be a feeling of disappointment or anticlimax when you actually read it. Happily though I can say that I quite enjoyed the experience of reading The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It is quite dry in places, being a product of the writing style of its period, and I do think it is fair to say that the conclusion reached is unlikely but the process of getting there is clever and interesting enough to make it a worthwhile short read in its own right.
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.