Reviews of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and related work

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841Text)

Edgar Allan Poe (writer).

Read in 2022.

A book-lover withdrawn from society solves a sensational double murder for which the Paris police have arrested the wrong man.

The flaws are as obvious as the short story’s influence on literary history. The preface about games is almost nonsensical, dismissing chess as a game of mere attention, not analysis. The subsequent episode illustrating Dupin’s character is implausible and tedious, and the central narrative of the murder is weak. It isn’t murder, after all. The police strip the walls to their masonry without even accidentally disturbing the loose head of a nail they think is holding a window shut. The orangutan does not behave as an orangutan would under the circumstances, nor would the witnesses reasonably hear its voice as human. The transitions between these three sequences are all awkward. It’s about grotesque violence against women and the narcissistic idea that a reading amateur like Dupin, a stand-in for the reader, would outwit the police in a scenario of the Todorovian uncanny. The story’s saving grace is its emphasis on empiricism. Dupin tests his ideas and Poe resists laziness and supernatural interpretation, which would have an influence on forensics decades later, when the police got detectives.

References here: The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), “Hop-Frog” (1849), A Study in Scarlet (1887).

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The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842Text)

Edgar Allan Poe (writer).

Read in 2022.

A thinly veiled fictionalized account of the 1841 murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, transposed to Paris, with the addition of unconfirmed speculation by Dupin to turn the real murder—which in reality remains unsolved—into a detective story.

This is as creative as the first story and superior in composition, but as Dupin points out, its subject is ordinary. There is nothing special even about the wave of national attention and speculation that followed the unexplained death of a famously beautiful young white woman in New York, when she was possibly menaced by someone of darker skin.

Poe uses fiction only as insulation to enable him to comment on otherwise private and grotesque events. Despite the improved composition, there is no traditioal literary value in it. Instead, this sequel’s significance lies in pioneering the direct application of detective fiction to what would later be called “true crime”. That is a foolish endeavour, but Poe does apply serious critical thinking to it and succeeds better than the sensational journalism he quotes at length.

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“The Purloined Letter” (1844Text)

Edgar Allan Poe (writer).

Read in 2022.

Poe invents another component of detective fiction as a genre. Here it’s glamorous, scandalous, murder-free intrigue, akin to espionage, yet solvable by the implausible inference of a man supposedly cut off from society. The narrator remains unnamed and all of the other characters except Dupin are reduced to one initial of their names with little characterization, but unlike the previous story, this one is obviously a complete fiction. Even so, the simple narrative is sketched out with as much vagueness and circumlocution as Poe could muster. It’s silly, but it’s also cozy in the manner that many later authors of detective fiction would attempt.

References here: Gosick (2011).

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