As this is posted, it’s 181 years since the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. It’s hard to overstate the impact the story had on literature; many people argue that it was the first detective story. And we see several aspects of it in later crime fiction. There are also ways in which later crime fiction differed – sometimes deliberately – from it.
For example, The Murders in the Rue Morgue introduces C. Auguste Dupin, a man of impeccable family who takes an interest in the murders of two women. He’s not paid to investigate, or even asked to, really. He does it because the case interests him, and he wants to use his skill at what Poe called ratiocination – a logical progression of thinking. What’s more, he believes that the man the police have accused of the crime is innocent, and he wants that man’s name cleared. Dupin leaps to some conclusions that wouldn’t be accepted by today’s crime fiction fans. But his way of drawing conclusions, and his interest in solving the puzzle still resonate.
We see this, for example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, which were first published some 45 years after Poe’s Dupin stories. Holmes is dedicated to logical reasoning, and frequently uses small bits of evidence (like the condition of a hat) to draw conclusions about people and events. Conan Doyle was fed up with detective stories in which the sleuth was able to solve the crime almost by intuition. He wanted to create a detective who used science and scientific reasoning as the basis for his deductions, and that Holmes does. And, yet, like Dupin, Holmes also has an interest in ensuring that innocent people do not pay the price for crimes they didn’t commit. If you consider that to be an aspect of justice, then Holmes also seeks justice. Interestingly, too, like the Dupin stories, the Holmes stories are by and large narrated by a friend. The narrator in The Murders in the Rue Morgue is unnamed, but in Holmes’ case, it’s Dr. Watson.
Several of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories are also narrated by a friend. Captain Hastings often serves as Poirot’s biographer (Christie had one or two other narrators as well). But Poirot differs from Dupin as a detective. Poirot accepts the value of certain evidence, but he doesn’t use the sort of deductive logic that Dupin uses to draw conclusions from that evidence. For Poirot, psychology is at least as important as whether there are footprints in a certain place. In fact, in more than one story, the physical evidence leads the police to one conclusion, but Poirot looks at it all from a different point of view and draws another conclusion. One possible impact on Christie’s stories is the fact that psychology as a field of study had become much more well known and better founded in research. Freud, Jung, and others had been studying psychology, and by Christie’s time, it had become more accepted. So, it makes sense that Poirot would have an interest and some knowledge of the topic. That said, though, Poirot has in common with Dupin an interest in solving puzzles and in ensuring that innocent people be cleared of suspicion.
It’s also interesting to look at Dupin’s relationship with the police. While he doesn’t mock the police, and he understands the importance of what they do, he also thinks they fall short. Here’s what he says about them in The Murders in the Rue Morgue:
‘The Paris police work hard and often get good results; but there is no real method in what they do.’
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes feels the same way, even though there are individual police officers whom he likes. He feels that they don’t apply scientific deduction the way they ought to, which is why they don’t solve more crimes than they do. Christie’s Poirot has a few differences with some individual police (right, fans of The Murder on the Links?). But by and large, he knows that the police work hard and do their jobs well. In fact, he works well with Inspector Japp and Superintendent Spence more than once, and with other police detectives, too. It’s worth noting that, in the 80-100 years between Dupin and Poirot, the police force had become much more professional, and new technology (like fingerprints and dental records) had come into use. It makes sense, then, that Poirot might see the police differently to the way Dupin and Holmes do.
It’s also worth noting that both Charles Dickens (in Bleak House) and Wilkie Collins (in The Moonstone) included police detectives as characters. In both of those cases, the police are portrayed as more capable than they are in some of the Holmes and Dupin stories. Dickens’ work was written only fifteen years after the original Poe story, and Collins’ novel twenty-seven years after the Poe story. In that time, the real-life police were already becoming more professional, and it’s not hard to see that in these stories.
Despite these differences, though, Dickens, Collins, Conan Doyle, Christie, and many, many other writers owe their creations to The Murders in the Rue Morgue. By today’s standards, it may leave things to be desired in terms of plot and characters. But there’s no denying its impact.
Thanks, Poe Museum, for the ‘photo!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s Edgar Allan Poe.