A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and my favorite of the three Dupin stories.
The past few weeks have been enormously busy and so I have found it quite tricky to find the time to read anything. When I do, I find I cannot hold my concentration for more than a few dozen pages. Fortunately I remembered that I had something in my TBR pile that was that sort of length – the last of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Auguste Dupin short stories.
The Purloined Letter sees G-, the prefect of the Paris police, approach Dupin for advice on the matter of a stolen letter written by the queen’s lover. That letter is being used by the thief to blackmail her and gain influence.
The prefect is certain of the culprit’s identity and has executed a thorough search of his property but cannot find any sign of that letter. This puzzles him as he is sure that the thief must have the letter somewhere close at hand to keep it safe and enable him to produce it if necessary. The prefect asks for Dupin’s help and gives him a description of the letter.
We then jump forward a month as G- returns to speak with Dupin. The search has been fruitless and he tells Dupin he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can find the letter. Dupin tells him that he should write him a check as he knows where the letter is and proceeds to explain how he found it.
If that brief synopsis of the plot sounds familiar, it is because this story shares a lot of common elements with Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Scandal in Bohemia. In both cases we know the thief’s identity from close to the start of the story and each features a document related to an affair with a royal that could destroy a monarchy. On top of that, there are also a few story beats that the two short stories seem to have in common.
Obviously we cannot suggest that Poe’s work, as the older, is in any way to blame for those similarities. The problem is that it is impossible not to be aware of them as the later story, as one of Doyle’s most celebrated, will likely be one that readers have already encountered. That is unfortunate as I think that may serve to blunt the impact of one of the story’s most satisfying ideas.
I should probably also take a moment to say that while I think there is a lot of shared intellectual ground between the two stories, they differ in enough elements and themes to feel quite distinctive from each other. Several of the tweaks Doyle makes serve to make those themes feel all the stronger.
Getting back to the basic scenario, I think this story does a fine job of establishing the facts of the case in a consice manner. We understand the stakes and the circumstances surrounding the crime, the question is how they managed to execute that plan.
Structurally I feel that this story also represents a pretty significant improvement over its two predecessors. Where the relating of the facts in those stories seemed a little awkward, the more conversational approach used here not only helps break up the material into smaller, more manageable chunks, it also helped me engage more with the information being provided.
I also appreciated that Dupin feels more engaged in the action here than in his other two adventures. He even plays an active role in the case, travelling to a crime scene rather than remaining as a purely armchair detective. This more active approach works pretty well and makes this my favorite story in the trio.
This is the first murder mystery based on the details of a real crime. It first appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.
As important to the development of the detective story as the previous Dupin mystery but nowhere near as engaging.
A little over a year ago I wrote about the first of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Dupin mysteries, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. At that time I had every expectation I would blog about all three stories and actually read this one in preparation for that. Unfortunately that was right about the time real life got in the way of my blogging and by the time I was ready to write about it, the memories had faded too much to put anything accurate or coherent together.
Well, this week I decided to go ahead and read it again so the story is now fresh in my mind. I don’t know if I can promise that my thoughts are all that more coherent than they would have been a year ago though…
Like its predecessor, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is more of a long short story than a novella. It is also narrated by the same nameless friend of Dupin who is still in awe of his friend’s ability to use ratiocination to logically work through and posit explanations for crimes.
One significant difference between this and the other two Dupin stories is that both the narrator and sleuth do not at any point leave their sitting room to investigate the crime. Instead they will be armchair detectives, gleaning and then reinterpreting the facts given in the reports appearing in the city’s newspapers.
The crime in this story is quite famously drawn on a real unsolved case that had occurred several years before Poe wrote this. That victim was Mary Cecilia Rogers, a cigar girl who disappeared once, then reappeared when she returned from an apparent elopement, before disappearing for good three years later. Several days after that second disappearance her body was found floating in the Hudson River having appeared to have been murdered.
As you may have noticed from the title Poe gave his story, he makes little attempt to disguise the source of his inspiration. You don’t need to be a genius detective to see the links between the names Marie Rogêt and Mary Rogers. And even if you missed it, Poe’s narrator directly makes the connection for the reader just a couple of paragraphs in.
Most of the essential points of the case are presented here as they were – the changes he introduces are mostly incidental. Names are altered. The location is changed but the most essential points are the same.
For this reason many have pointed to the story as being one of the first instances of a crime writer finding inspiration in a famous, real-life crime. In a technical sense I think that it true but I would suggest that there is a gulf between what Poe is doing here and what, for example, Agatha Christie does in The Murder on the Links or Dorothy L. Sayers in Strong Poison. Where those writers took inspiration as a starting point for a narrative, Poe is fictionalizing here to enable him to posit his own ‘very rigorous analysis’ of a real crime.
I think it is clear that this is his intent from some of the storytelling decisions Poe makes. Most tellingly, once Dupin gleans everything he can from the newspaper reports the story simply stops. He identifies what he thinks is the logical explanation of the crime but does not create any additional evidence or provide us with any sort of an ending in which his deductions can be proved.
Similarly the device of telling us what happened through an extended newspaper report that has been constructed from the information gleaned from other previous newspaper reporting feels rather clunky and formal. We are simply presented with long blocks of uninterrupted reporting with little opportunity for characterization or comment. I believe that had storytelling been Poe’s primary concern or interest there would have been some form of interviews or at least a visit to the scene of the crime.
Poe however is primarily interested in the idea that processes of logical reasoning are more important than interaction with the evidence. That belief in the process is not unique to Poe – it is not difficult to see it reflected in the approaches taken at times by Holmes or Poirot – but Poe’s dedication to it can come at the expense of engaging storytelling and certainly I believe that is the case here.
I don’t think it helps much that the case itself is nowhere near as mysterious as that in the previous story in spite of Dupin’s claims that this is ‘a far more intricate case’. There is nothing approaching an impossibility in the crime and while the police may not have been able to produce a clear resolution to the case, some overlooked clues do rather stand out in the reporting to the point where the police appear astonishingly incompetent for not considering them.
For instance, there is a point at which Dupin presents several additional paragraphs from previous newspaper reports that were omitted in the main account of the crime. There are several points in those accounts that are so clearly presenting a possible alternative explanation of the crime that it is incredible when our narrator claims:
Upon reading these various extracts, they not only seemed to me to be irrelevant, but I could perceive no mode in which any one of them could be brought to bear in the matter in hand.
The only possible explanation for his thinking the clues irrelevant is that our narrator is an idiot.
While I get the need for the sidekick to be continually amazed by the mental prowess of the detective, it hardly feels earned at that moment. He has certainly shown diligence and solid reasoning but every deduction is reasonable and replicable by the reader.
On a similar note, some of Dupin’s blanket assertions can seem rather silly. For instance I can only echo JJ’s bafflement at the idea that ruffians are more likely to possess handkerchiefs than shirts (and I’ll refer you to the wonderful, spoilery conversation he had with Christian about this story).
There are a few deductive moments however that feel more impressive. I was particularly taken with the inferences Dupin draws from a description of some of the victim’s effects. Delivered without hyperbole, it comes off as a thoughtful and credible block contributing to our understanding of what has happened.
Unfortunately there were just not enough of those moments for me to feel fully engaged in this story. While the real case may have gripped America for months, this fictionalized version felt rather too dry and academic and I never really felt connected to the events of the crime.
The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is certainly another significant work in the development of the detective story. While the illustrations of ratiocination may not be as spellbinding as those in Poe’s previous Dupin story, the process is illustrated well and help to further establish the armchair detective model we would see emulated half a century later by Conan Doyle. I just wish that Poe had been a little less focused on proving a point and taken greater care to give us a compelling story with a satisfying resolution.
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.