The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe published in Graham's Magazine in 1841. It has been claimed as the first detective story; Poe referred to it as one of his "tales of ratiocination." Similar works predate Poe's stories, including Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1819) by E.T.A. Hoffmann and Zadig (1748) by Voltaire.
C. Auguste Dupin is a man in Paris who solves the mysterious brutal murder of two women. Numerous witnesses heard a suspect, though no one agrees on what language was spoken. At the murder scene, Dupin finds a hair that does not appear to be human.
As the first true detective in fiction, the Dupin character established many literary devices which would be used in future fictional detectives including Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Many later characters, for example, follow Poe's model of the brilliant detective, his personal friend who serves as narrator, and the final revelation being presented before the reasoning that leads up to it. Dupin himself reappears in "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" and "The Purloined Letter."
The story surrounds the baffling double murder of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter in the Rue Morgue, a fictional street in Paris. Newspaper accounts of the murder reveal that the mother's throat is so badly cut that her head is barely attached and the daughter, after being strangled, has been stuffed into the chimney. The murder occurs in an inaccessible room on the fourth floor locked from the inside. Neighbors who hear the murder give contradictory accounts, claiming they hear the murderer speaking a different language. The speech is unclear, they say, and they admit to not knowing the language they are claiming to have heard.
Paris natives Dupin and his friend, the unnamed narrator of the story, read these newspaper accounts with interest. The two live in seclusion and allow no visitors. They have cut off contact with "former associates" and venture outside only at night. "We existed within ourselves alone," the narrator explains. When a man named Adolphe Le Bon has been imprisoned though no evidence exists pointing to his guilt, Dupin is so intrigued that he offers his services to "G–," the prefect of police.
Because none of the witnesses can agree on the language the murderer spoke, Dupin concludes they were not hearing a human voice at all. He finds a hair at the scene of the murder that is quite unusual; "this is no human hair," he concludes. Dupin puts an advertisement in the newspaper asking if anyone has lost an "Ourang-Outang." The ad is answered by a sailor who comes to Dupin at his home. The sailor offers a reward for the orangutan's return; Dupin asks for all the information the sailor has about the murders in the Rue Morgue. The sailor reveals that he had been keeping a captive orangutan obtained while ashore in Borneo. The animal escaped with the sailor's shaving straight razor. When he pursued the orangutan, it escaped by scaling a wall and climbing up a lightning rod, entering the apartment in the Rue Morgue through a window.
Once in the room, the surprised Madame L'Espanaye could not defend herself as the orangutan attempted to shave her in imitation of the sailor's daily routine. The bloody deed incited it to fury and it squeezed the daughter's throat until she died. The orangutan then became aware of its master's whip, which it feared, and it attempted to hide the body by stuffing it into the chimney. The sailor, aware of the "murder," panicked and fled, allowing the orangutan to escape. The prefect of police, upon hearing this story, mentions that people should mind their own business. Dupin responds that G– is "too cunning to be profound."
Themes and analysis
In a letter to friend Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, Poe said of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "its theme was the exercise of ingenuity in detecting a murderer." Dupin is not a professional detective; he decides to investigate the murders in the Rue Morgue for his personal amusement. He also has a desire for truth and to prove a falsely accused man innocent. His interests are not financial and he even declines a monetary reward from the owner of the orangutan. The revelation of the actual murderer removes the crime, as neither the orangutan nor its owner can be held responsible. Later detective stories would have set up M. Le Bon, the suspect who is arrested, as appearing guilty as a red herring, though Poe chose not to.
Dupin's method emphasizes the importance of reading and the written word. The newspaper accounts pique his curiosity; he learns about orangutans from a written account by "Cuvier" – possibly Georges Cuvier, the French zoologist. This method also engages the reader, who follows along by reading the clues himself. Poe also emphasizes the power of the spoken word. When Dupin asks the sailor for information about the murders, the sailor himself acts out a partial death: "The sailor's face flushed up as if he were struggling with suffocation... the next moment he fell back into his seat, trembling violently, and with the countenance of death itself."
Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" at a time when crime was at the forefront in people's minds due to urban development. London had recently established its first professional police force and American cities were beginning to focus on scientific police work as newspapers reported murders and criminal trials. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" establishes an urban theme which will be reused several times in Poe's fiction, in particular "The Man of the Crowd," likely inspired by Poe's time living in Philadelphia.
The tale has an underlying metaphor for the battle of brains vs. brawn. Physical strength, depicted as the orangutan as well as its owner, stand for violence: the orangutan is a murderer, while its owner admits he has abused the animal with a whip. The analyst's brainpower overcomes their violence. The story also contains Poe's often-used theme of the death of a beautiful woman, which he called the "most poetical topic in the world."
Literary significance and reception
Poe biographer Jeffrey Meyers sums up the significance of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue": "[it] changed the history of world literature." Often cited as the first detective fiction story, the character of Dupin became the prototype for many future fictional detectives, including Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. The genre is distinctive from a general mystery story in that the focus is on analysis. Poe's role in the creation of the detective story is reflected in the Edgar Awards, given annually by the Mystery Writers of America.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" also established many tropes that would become common elements in mystery fiction: the eccentric but brilliant detective, the bumbling constabulary, the first-person narration by a close personal friend. Poe also portrays the police in an unsympathetic manner as a sort of foil to the detective. Poe also initiates the storytelling device where the detective announces his solution and then explains the reasoning leading up to it. It is also the first locked room mystery in detective fiction.
Upon its release, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and its author were praised for the creation of a new profound novelty. The Pennsylvania Inquirer printed that "it proves Mr Poe to be a man of genius... with an inventive power and skill, of which we know no parallel." Poe, however, downplayed his achievement in a letter to Philip Pendleton Cooke:
These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious – but people think them more ingenious than they are – on account of their method and air of method. In the "Murders in the Rue Morgue," for instance, where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself... have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?"
Modern readers are occasionally put off by Poe's violation of an implicit narrative convention: The reader should be able to guess the solution as they read. The twist ending, however, is a sign of "bad faith" on Poe's part because readers would not reasonably include an orangutan on their list of potential murderers.
The word detective did not exist at the time Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" though there were other stories that featured similar problem-solving characters. Das Fräulein von Scuderi (1819), by E.T.A. Hoffmann, in which Mlle de Scudery, a kind of 18th century Miss Marple, establishes the innocence of the police's favorite suspect in the murder of a jeweler, is sometimes cited as the first detective story. Other forerunners include Voltaire's Zadig (1748), with a main character who performs similar feats of analysis.
Poe may also have been expanding on previous analytical works of his own including the essay on "Maelzel's Chess Player" and the comedic "Three Sundays in a Week." As for the twist in the plot, Poe was likely inspired by the crowd reaction to an orangutan on display at the Masonic Hall in Philadelphia in July 1839. The name of the main character may have been inspired from the "Dupin" character in a series of stories first published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1828 called "Unpublished passages in the Life of Vidocq, the French Minister of Police." Poe would likely have known the story, which features an analytical man who discovers a murderer, though the two plots share little resemblance. Murder victims in both stories, however, have their neck cut so badly that the head is almost entirely removed from the body. Dupin actually mentions Vidocq by name, dismissing him as "a good guesser."
Poe originally titled the story "Murders in the Rue Trianon" but renamed it to better associate with death. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" first appeared in Graham's Magazine in April 1841 while Poe was working as an editor. He was paid an additional $56 for it - an unusually high figure; he was only paid $9 for "The Raven." In 1843, Poe had the idea to print a series of pamphlets with his stories. He printed only one, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" oddly collected with the satirical "The Man That Was Used Up." It sold for 12 and a half cents. This version included 52 changes from the original text from Graham's, including the new line: "The Prefect is somewhat too cunning to be profound," a change from the original "too cunning to be acute." "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was also reprinted in Wiley & Putnam's collection of Poe's stories simply called Tales. Poe did not take part in selecting which tales would be collected.
Poe's "sequel" to "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt," first serialized in December 1842 and January 1843. Though subtitled "A Sequel to 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" shares very few common elements with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" beyond the inclusion of C. Auguste Dupin and the Paris setting. Dupin reappeared in "The Purloined Letter," which Poe called "perhaps the best of my tales of ratiocination" in a letter to James Russell Lowell in July 1844.
The original manuscript of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" which was used for its first printing in Graham's Magazine was discarded in a wastebasket. An apprentice at the office, J. M. Johnston, retrieved it and left it with his father for safekeeping. It was left in a music book, where it survived three house fires before being bought by George William Childs. In 1891, Childs presented the manuscript, re-bound with a letter explaining its history, to Drexel University. Childs had also donated $650 for the completion of Edgar Allan Poe's new grave monument in Baltimore, Maryland in 1875.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was one of the earliest of Poe's works to be translated into French. Between June 11 and June 13, 1846, "Un meurtre sans exemple dans les Fastes de la Justice" was published in La Quotidienne, a Paris newspaper. Poe's name was not mentioned and many details, including the name of the Rue Morgue and the main characters ("Dupin" became "Bernier"), were changed. On October 12, 1846, another uncredited translation, renamed "Une Sanglante Enigme," was published in Le Commerce. The editor of Le Commerce was accused of plagiarizing the story from La Quotidienne. The accusation went to trial and the public discussion brought Poe's name into the French public.
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" has been adapted for radio, film and television many times. The first full-length film adaptation of Poe's story was Murders in the Rue Morgue by Universal Pictures in 1932, directed by Robert Florey and starring Bela Lugosi, Leon Ames, and Sidney Fox, with Arlene Francis. The film bears little resemblance to the original story. Another adaptation, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, was released in 1954 by Warner Brothers, directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Karl Malden and Patricia Medina. A film in 1971 directed by Gordon Hessler with the title Murders in the Rue Morgue had little to do with the Poe story. On January 7, 1975, a radio-play version was broadcast on CBS Radio Mystery Theater. A made-for-TV movie, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, aired in 1986. It was directed by Jeannot Szwarc and starred George C. Scott, Rebecca De Mornay, Ian McShane, and Val Kilmer. It has also been adapted as a video game by Big Fish Games for their "Dark Tales" franchise under the title "Dark Tales: Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue."
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