Friday, June 23, 2017

Murders in the Rue Morgue: Poe Creates Prototype of the Modern Detective Story

I was in sixth or seventh grade when I acquired and first read Edgar Allen Poe: The Complete Stories and Poems. I had been into horror films as well as thrillers at the time and was drawn naturally to stories like The Pit & the Pendulum, The Black Cat, Tell-Tale Heart, and Masque of the Red Death. I didn't, as yet, know the extent of Poe's literary influence. I only knew that I found the stories were compelling.

A half century has passed since then and after having read recently of Poe's influence I picked up a copy of several Poe mysteries featuring C. Auguste Dupin, the first of these being "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." Very early in the story I recognized the first outlines of a pattern that every reader of mysteries will readily grasp, the format of our modern classic detective stories. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot parade before us, but it was Poe who invented the prototype. Each detective hero is introduced in a similar manner by means of some incident in which we observe his or her masterful powers of observation and deduction. In the case of Poe's Dupin, he deduces that the narrator, his companion, is thinking about a certain actor. "How could you have possibly known that?" his friend exclaims. Dupin outlines the steps by which he pieced together what, to him, was obvious.

I immediately thought about one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories featuring Sherlock Holmes in which the great detective deduces that Watson has just returned from Afghanistan. I do not recall the story, only that there one of the clues had to do with his shoes, and Watson was simply astonished.

Once the brilliant mind of our hero has been established the story can begin. It is nearly always a murder, one that leaves the authorities stumped. In Poe's story two women are brutally murdered shortly after receiving a sum of money (a red herring). They live on the fourth floor of  building locked from the inside and their fourth floor apartment is similarly locked from within. The younger woman has been shoved up inside a chimney with such force that it could not have been a murder suicide. The windows are such that it appears no possibility of entrance or exit there either. Several people heard the commotion, the screams and what was  clearly the sounds of the murderer, but no one could agree as to what language he spoke. The Spaniard said it was English, the Englishman said it was Dutch, the Frenchman said Spanish, etc. It was essentially a garbled mess of unrecognizable garble.

As one would expect, our brilliant detective has already solved the problems in the case long before anyone has the first inkling.

Just as Sci Fi writers aspire to win a Hugo, journalists the Pulitzer, and Hollywood actors an Oscar, the coveted prize for detective fiction is the Edgar, named after Poe and placing his achievement with this story at the pinnacle of originality and significance.

What is the pinnacle of success in your field? 

No comments: