The genre of a detective novel always attracted a large audience with its suspenseful premise and a satisfactory and often revelatory ending. One can argue that this genre has a set of traits that were established once and had not changed significantly since then (Rosenheim 81). Many short stories by Edgar Allan Poe also have an element of mystery and detective work in them. The story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is told by an unnamed narrator who describes a seemingly unsolvable case and its resolution by Dupin, the narrator’s friend and a brilliant man with unique analytical skills.
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This particular tale is fascinating not only because of its protagonists but also because of the character serving as the story’s “criminal” whose identity is surprising to both the audience and the narrator himself. On the one hand, the author uses many devices that are now considered to be traditional for this genre. On the other hand, some scholars believe that the story’s ending subverts one’s expectations and separates it from other similar works of this genre. It makes Poe one of the leading developers of the style and a creator with a different outlook on the use of science in fiction.
In the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the audience is introduced to the narrator and his thoughts about the analytical processes that happen in people’s minds. He plays the role of the companion to Dupin, an intelligent man with an acutely attuned sense of logic and incredible analytical skills (Poe). Dupin’s abilities amuse the narrator, although he does not completely understand them. However, this divide between their skills fascinates him even more, which makes him engage in frequent discussions with Dupin to learn more about his thought process.
While reading a newspaper one evening, Dupin and the narrator are presented with a mystery case – the deaths of “Madame L’Espanaye, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye” which happened under the circumstances that baffle both the average citizens and the police (Poe). The room in the woman’s house is in disorder, and the two of them are brutally murdered under unknown circumstances.
After concluding that the police are unable to find the murderer based on collected clues and the words of the victims’ neighbors, protagonists decide to investigate the case by themselves. After examining the site of the murder and witnesses’ testimonies, Dupin demonstrates his analytical abilities. He correctly pinpoints the murderer (an “Ourang-Outang”), the weapon that was used to kill one of the women (a barber’s razor), and the circumstances that led to these strange deaths.
After solving the murder and finding the criminal, Dupin shares this information with his friend and confronts the guilty party himself, explaining the whole story. While the narrator considers the case’s details to be unbelievable at first, Dupin’s plan to confront the person in possession of the ape and his recollection of the events convince him. The innocent person convicted of this crime is saved, but Dupin’s relations with the police remain strained due to his superior abilities and sheer interest in mysteries.
The character of Dupin can be considered the standard for the detective persona that is often placed at the center of such mysteries. This man was once prosperous but “by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it” (Poe). His frugal lifestyle allowed him only to obtain books. The narrator notes that Dupin is exceptionally well-read and possesses an imagination that separates him from others. Moreover, he is not merely intelligent but uniquely gifted with extraordinary analytical skills.
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The audience is exposed to the detective’s brilliance through the lens of the narrator who continuously reminds the reader that his friend is smarter than the average man. Thus, the detective, who otherwise might not have been an interesting person to follow if he was by himself, is shown to be an incredibly engaging and appealing man. His train of thought, hidden from the audience at first, is revealed through the dialogue between the two men. As the narrator cannot follow Dupin’s logic without explanations from the amateur detective, his questions allow the audience to see the full picture as well.
Detective stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” often use another character to enhance the personal and professional qualities of the detective persona (Lee 227). A narrator, usually a rather close friend of the main protagonist, does not possess a similar level of intelligence and has a more grounded and less eccentric temperament. Such a difference allows the audience to relate to the narrator more strongly while finding the detective’s personality to be more exciting at the same time.
This difference does not mean that this character is not intelligent, but that the protagonist is unique in his or her ways of thinking. This approach to character selection and storytelling heavily influenced other authors’ works, namely Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective and mystery stories, including his most famous duo – Holmes and Watson (Miranda).
However, Poe puts much effort into making Dupin sound genuinely involved with the investigation. First of all, the author provides readers with a lengthy discussion about the use of one’s analytical skills at the beginning of the story. Such an introduction engages the audience and prepares it for a story based on the points that the narrator makes. Thus, the focus on Dupin’s analytical skills is established before the character appears in the scenes.
This decision of the author makes the process of Dupin’s investigation more significant than other details of the novel. Nevertheless, Poe addresses the character’s personality briefly to make him more memorable. For instance, his financial situation mentioned above leads to Dupin becoming disinterested with material possessions except for books and explains his in-depth knowledge of various spheres. His ability to find the murderer, in the end, is based on this knowledge as well as his skills. Dupin correctly assumes the origins of the evidence (a piece of ribbon) that he finds at the crime scene and deciphers a text that requires in-depth knowledge in various spheres.
Dupin’s ability to notice details that are overlooked by the police is also significant to the plot. The detective’s relationship with the police force and the portrayal of the latter are also the elements that were frequently featured in Gothic fiction (Miranda). During the Victorian Gothic, law enforcement often lacked the necessary skills to connect found evidence with the case and correctly analyze the crime scene (Miranda).
Therefore, a character such as Dupin served as a person that was able to perform better than the police, possibly allowing the audience to feel as though the police are inadequate. Moreover, the weak analytical skills of the police often allowed Poe and similar authors to create characters who use advanced scientific investigatory theories and devices. Dupin’s reasoning differs from that of a police officer as he uses assumptions, science, and force of argument to construct and solve the case.
The understanding of the case is what truly separates Dupin from the police and other people. For example, he treats the absence of some details as a detail in itself (Schleifer and Vannatta 369). The lack of evidence of the killer’s escape should be accounted for and treated as a significant point in the investigation. The authors note that this type of reasoning is narrative as it places considerable emphasis on constructing the story from details that are or are not evident.
Dupin’s interest in mysteries is also a trait that was and is still typical for detective characters in fiction. His infatuation with cases that are difficult to solve and his eagerness to prevail are the main reasons for Dupin to engage with the situation. The process of resolving is the main reward for him. Dupin refuses to support the police and conducts his investigation to test his skills. He states that “the Parisian police … are cunning, but no more” implying that their methods are unsuccessful and will not lead to a resolution (Poe).
Furthermore, when the owner of the animal offers Dupin money for his “Ourang-Outang,” the detective does not accept the reward and uses this opportunity to gather more information. Dupin declares, “My reward shall be this. You shall give me all the information in your power about these murders in the Rue Morgue” (Poe). Thus, his interest in mysteries is the motivation in itself, driving him to pursue the criminal and engage with the evidence in innovative ways.
The “criminal” character of the short story is also interesting. The orangutan, called “Ourang-Outang” in the story, is not a typical suspect that may be expected by the audience (Poe). The animal’s presence in the story changes the usual search for motives and attempts to hide the evidence, which is what possibly makes the case so difficult to solve for the police. The ape’s nature and instincts do not make him a criminal, but his relationship with his owner does.
In the story, the orangutan is acquired by a sailor who confines the animal. There, the ape can only watch his owner as the man uses a razor for shaving. The ape learns the motions and attempts to repeat them, first on itself, then on the Madame L’Espanaye. Thus, conventional motives that led to the killing are absent from this case, leaving the police and the detective wondering.
It can be assumed that fear and the presence of strong instincts are what moved the orangutan to murder the women and escape. The use of an animal in the story allows Poe to create a compelling premise that does not have an evil human mastermind behind the murders. Instead, by making the police encounter a non-human criminal, Poe can concentrate on the uniqueness of the case, highlighting Dupin’s analytical abilities even more.
Miquel-Baldellou also states that the character of the ape is often interpreted metaphorically by literary critics (133). Many analyses include the implications of race and racial tensions, where ape serves as a comparison to “African-American slaves living in Richmond, where Poe resided for many years” as “black people [were considered] to be closely related to primates” (Miquel-Baldellou 133). By examining the historical context, such parallels can be made as Poe lived when slavery was a widespread concept.
This connection between primates and human slaves paints a different picture of Poe’s intentions. As the orangutan’s motives were purely instinctual, the negative view of other races may be found in the story. While other more metaphorical analyses of the ape compare him to the force of nature, this correlation seems to reveal Poe’s view of humans, including the assumed differences between white and black people. This point of view makes the narrative more focused on racist implications and removes the sense of uniqueness from this case as it makes Dupin’s reasoning grounded in old evolutionist theories (Miquel-Baldellou 134). However, if one were to view the ape without such connotations, the story could retain its focus on mystery and unique circumstances that required a person with excellent analytical skills.
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The depiction of the detective and the criminal in the short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” presents readers with several concepts both well-known and unique to the genre. Dupin, the amateur detective, is a character whose pure interest in solving mysteries and a unique set of skills make him an interesting protagonist and a hero with non-materialistic motivations. The orangutan, the accidental criminal of the story, can be interpreted differently by the audience. However, the uniqueness of the case devoid of a common motive and the lack of the “battle of the minds” often present in other detective stories separates “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” from the rest of the genre’s examples.
Lee, Maurice S. “Probably Poe.” American Literature, vol. 81, no. 2, 2009, pp. 225-252.
Miquel-Baldellou, Marta. “Foretelling Darwinism, Revising Race: Poe’s Scientific Discourse in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’” Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, vol. 66, 2013, pp. 127-135.
Miranda, Michelle. “Reasoning Through Madness: The Detective in Gothic Crime Fiction.” Palgrave Communications, vol. 3, 2017. Web.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The University of Adelaide, 1841. The University of Adelaide E-book. Web.
Rosenheim, Shawn. “Detective Fiction, Psychoanalysis, and the Analytic Sublime.” Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Other Stories, edited by Harold Bloom, Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2014, pp. 81-103.
Schleifer, Ronald, and Jerry Vannatta. “The Logic of Diagnosis: Peirce, Literary Narrative, and the History of Present Illness.” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, vol. 31, no. 4, 2006, pp. 363-384.