05/18/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

On the Invention of M. Dupin

On the Invention of M. Dupin

This is a transcript of a talk that was given, by Dr. Olivia Rutigliano, at New York University Law School’s Poe Room Event, on May 19th, 2023. Briefly,  from 1845-1846, Edgar Allan Poe lived in a building on the site where NYU Law’s Furman Hall now stands. The Poe Room Event is a twice-annual event, open to the public, that invites scholars and artists to put together a presentation honoring Poe’s legacy.

This speech contains spoilers for the stories “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” and “The Purloined Letter.”

*

The subject of today’s talk takes us to Paris, in the 1840s.

A gruesome double-murder has taken place one night in a home along the Rue Morgue, a street in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris. The victims are two women, Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. The body of the younger woman is found stuffed inside a chimney. She has marks on her neck from strangulation. Her mother’s body lies in the backyard, with numerous bones broken. Her face is badly mutilated, and a tuft of reddish hair is stuck in her fist. She has such a deep gash in her throat that when the police lift her body to carry it away, her head falls off.

The residents of the street had been awoken at night by screams—about “eight or ten” neighbors and two gendarmes had, together, forced themselves inside to see if everyone in the home was all right. Running up the stairs, they still hear noises from somewhere above, but by the time they reach the fourth floor, everything has gone silent.

The police determine that the murder took place there—on the fourth floor of the house, which has been thoroughly ransacked and where strange pieces of evidence remain: tufts of gray human hair on the fireplace, gold coins all over the floor, and a straight razor, which is by now caked in blood, lying on a chair. A safe is open. And complicating things is that the room is locked. The concerned neighbors and constables had needed to break down the door.

The police speak to many witnesses, who explain that they heard several voices coming from the house. One voice was male and was speaking French (which they know because they heard the cry of “mon dieu”), but no one can agree on the language that the other speaker has used. The police are entirely stumped.

But there is one man who is not. And his name is Le Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin.

This is the premise of the mystery at the center of a short story called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” It was published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841, written by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. And it is thought to be the first true, the first pure, the first modern detective story in history. Which makes Dupin the first modern detective.

Dupin is a chevalier—which means he has been given the Légion d’honneur, a knighthood, at some point in the past. He is a young man, from a once wealthy family that has since ceased to be so. He is presented to us by the story’s unnamed narrator, an Englishman. And they meet in the most appropriate of settings: searching for a book.

They meet in an “obscure library in the Rue Montmartre.” The narrator says that “the accident of our both being in search of the same very rare and very remarkable volume, brought us into closer communion. We saw each other again and again.”

Our narrator says of him, “This young gentleman was of an excellent, indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care for the retrieval of his fortunes. By courtesy of his creditors, there remained in his possession a small remnant of his patrimony; and, upon the income arising from this, he managed, by means of a rigorous economy, to procure the necessaries of life, without troubling himself about its superfluities. Books, indeed, were his sole luxuries, and in Paris these are easily obtained.”

The two strike up a friendship, and since the Englishman does not have permanent lodgings for his stay, they agree to live together. Dupin moves into the narrator’s home, which is “a time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not inquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain.”

They live in a home full of books, decorated “in a style which suited the rather fantastic gloom of our common temper.” And it is there where Dupin and his friend open a newspaper, the Gazette des Tribunaux, one morning to learn about the ghastly horrors that took place in a home across the river, a home on a street called the Rue Morgue.

The article, simply called “Extraordinary Murders,” chronicles the gruesome scene. For days, the papers will overflow with coverage into this mysterious, grisly circumstance—relaying interviews with twelve people who knew the deceased or lived nearby. No one can agree on the language being spoken in the room. And everyone confirms that no person had entered the house all night. The police arrest a young clerk named Adolphe Le Bon but have not explained why.

And after reading everything—the testimonies, the descriptions— Dupin asks his friend what he has made of all of this. Dupin’s friend doesn’t believe that it’s possible to figure out the identity of the killer from any of the evidence. Dupin begs to differ. Friends with the prefect of police, he grants them both entry to the crime scene.

The scene is the same as they have read in the papers. And Dupin walks around, narrating what he is seeing. He explains to his friend that what they are doing is unprecedented “in investigations such as we are now pursuing, it should not be so much asked ‘what has occurred,’ as ‘what has occurred that has never occurred before.’

Dupin does not see a mass of conflicting details, but a collection of details that all point to the same thing, in their conflict.

The interviewed neighbors are people from all over Europe, and they all think they are hearing languages that others, speakers of those languages, think are other languages.” “Now, how strangely unusual must that voice have really been, about which such testimony as this could have been elicited!—in whose tones, even, denizens of the five great divisions of Europe could recognize nothing familiar!”

This is because, with the exception of the Frenchman’s “mon dieu,” “…no words—no sounds resembling words—were by any witness mentioned as distinguishable,” he says. Dupin also divines that the murderer must have escaped via the windows—the back windows. It is the only explanation as to how all the doors could have been locked, and the home not entered from the street.

Dupin and his friend stand there, trying to figure out the entity that might have been able to climb up and down the side of a building, make humanlike sounds without saying words, and be strong enough to do serious damage to two women. The mother has had her head nearly severed by the grip of a straight razor, while the daughter has thumbprints and fingernail gashes on her throat. Dupin’s friend thinks it must be a madman.

But Dupin realizes that it is not a man at all. The handprint on the daughter’s neck is too wide. The hair in the mother’s fist is too coarse.

The killer, Dupin divines, is an orangutan—an orangutan who must have been captured in the wild and brought to Paris in captivity, only to escape.

Dupin puts an ad in the paper, claiming that he has found an ape. Someone answers the ad—a sailor. This is the Frenchman whose voice could be heard along with the unintelligible grunts of the ape—who had chased his escaped, and unfairly treated pet, as he fled away from the sailor, into another house. The man tells Dupin that the orangutan had attacked the two women he randomly encountered there in his frenzy, before escaping out the window again.

Because Dupin has found the sailor who can recount the tale, he is able to convince the police to release the wrongfully imprisoned man.

*

Dupin was such a success that would appear again in two more stories, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” published from 1842 to 1943, and “The Purloined Letter” in 1844.

Readers were enchanted by his unique deductive abilities. His narrator begs him, “Tell me, for Heaven’s sake, the method—if method there is—by which you have been enabled to fathom my soul in this matter.

Dupin practices a heightened method of analysis referred to as “ratiocination”—a purely intellectual method of observing things in great detail and being able to imagine how those things would have interacted. Some who do not understand it find it to be a little supernatural.

In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the narrator tries to put a pin in exactly what the process is. Here is some of his legwork:

“The mental features discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis… As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension præternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.”

“The faculty of re-solution is possibly much invigorated by mathematical study, and especially by that highest branch of it which, unjustly, and merely on account of its retrograde operations, has been called, as if par excellence, analysis. Yet to calculate is not in itself to analyse.”

Basically, he explains, “the extent of information obtained; lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation.” Poe would later refer to all three Dupin stories as his “tales of ratiocination.”

Dupin is not a policeman, and he is not a private detective. He is a true amateur. But his gifts, and his insistence on using them to solve the puzzles that arise in life, cement his tale as literature’s first modern detective story.

As literary critic A. E. Murch writes, the detective story is one in which the “primary interest lies in the methodical discovery, by rational means, of the exact circumstances of a mysterious event or series of events.”

Critic Peter Thoms elaborates on this, defining the detective story as “chronicling a search for explanation and solution,” adding, “such fiction typically unfolds as a kind of puzzle or game, a place of play and pleasure for both detective and reader.” The well-heeled Dupin is an armchair detective who solves puzzles because he can and because he likes to. He sees things that no one else can see, draws conclusions that for many others are too far outside of the box.

If Poe had not solidified the conventions that we recognize as marking the modern detective story, others likely would have done the same not long after. Literature was on its way to this discover; certainly, there had been a long lineage of characters who operated similarly, tracking down stolen objects and cracking impossible puzzles, and, like Dupin, doing so as private citizens, rather then as agents of the state.

In 1747, Voltaire wrote a philosophical novella exploring the theme of problem-solving, Zadig ou la Destinée, featuring a wise young man in Babylonia whose knowledge gets him in trouble but often ultimately saves him. In William Godwin’s 1794 novel Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, a scathing indictment on the so-called justice system’s ability to ruin lives, state-sanctioned investigators are disavowed in favor of non-traditional problem-solvers. In 1819, the German novelist E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote Das Fräulein von Scuderi, in which a nosy woman named Mlle. de Scuderi (who might be considered a predecessor of Miss Marple) finds a stolen string of pearls.

And no nineteenth-century detective lineage would be complete without Eugène-François Vidocq, a criminal-turned-criminologist who lived from 1775-1857 and who founded and ran France’s first national police, the Sûreté nationale, as well as France’s first private detection agency. His life inspired countless (swashbuckling) adaptations, including an American adaptation published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1828, entitled “Unpublished passages in the Life of Vidocq, the French Minister of Police,” which Poe very well might have read. Interestingly there’s a character in that story named “Dupin.” Ahem.

Poe had been experimenting with the conventions of detective fiction, himself. Many of his horror stories had also relied on the kind of third-act reveal, a twist—but one that is not figured out. Poe seemed to discover that the difference between a detective story and a horror story was the inclusion of a character who could make sense of the mysterious events going on. Horror stories are mysteries without someone to explain them.

I submit that in his stories leading up to the Dupin tales, Poe had been experimenting with “bad” or “failed” detectives, in this way.

In 1839, he wrote the short story “William Wilson,” which features a man driven mad by the perception of his own doppelgänger, who does not realize until he fatally stabs him, that his doppelgänger was his own reflection—himself. In 1840, he wrote “The Man of the Crowd,” a story about a man who believes that there is a man walking around London who is able to change his appearance subtly to blend in with the different groups he encounters. The narrator believes that something about this ability is ambiguously criminal and he pursues that man until he cannot do it anymore, unable to figure out what it is that the man wants or has done.

Thus, until his stories about a detective searching for clues, many of Poe’s stories come to act as clues in the mystery of an author searching for his detective.

It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of Poe’s discovery—not only for his career, but also for history. Detective fiction is commonly regarded as decidedly non-academic. But academia would be nowhere without Poe or Dupin. The famed Columbia drama professor Brander Matthews wrote, “The true detective story as Poe conceived it is not in the mystery itself, but rather in the successive steps whereby the analytic observer is enabled to solve the problem that might be dismissed as beyond human elucidation.”

It was not long—only about a century—before scholars began to become to drawn to Poe. Indeed, Dupin’s greatest impact might lay outside of mystery novels, and inside the broader, later field of literary criticism. Dupin’s ability to read extraordinary meaning into clues makes him rather the first semiotician (or scholar devoted to figuring out the relationship between language and meaning), elucidating the relationship between signs, signifiers, and ‘signifieds’ more than a century before Ferdinand de Saussure published his work on the subject in 1966—particularly because Dupin finds his clues through linguistics rather than physical objects. (For more on Poe and semiotics and much more, I recommend the edited collection The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading.)

A reminder that, in “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” he deduces the whole solution because of two words allegedly spoken during the crime; “Upon these two words [‘mon Dieu!’]…I have mainly built my hopes of a full solution of the riddle.”

Poe knew that he was onto something, with Dupin. So he wrote a sequel.

By that “The Murder of Marie Roget” begins, Dupin is a minor celebrity. The story of how he solved the Murders in the Rue Morgue has catapulted him to fame. But domestic life has gone on as normal… as usual, Dupin regales his narrator friend with his ratiocination, all the time—often seeming to predict what his friend is thinking and finishing his sentences. His friend has remained astounded at the way Dupin has been able to solve the Rue Morgue murders but does not imagine that his friend’s parlor trick will ever be used in such a serious manner ever again. Until a year later.

That’s when Dupin reads in the paper that the body of a beautiful young woman, a perfume saleswoman who had previously gone missing, has been found floating in the Seine. Dupin’s friend gets a detailed account of the police investigation from the prefecture and brings it home.

Together, they read everything they can about it.

““I need scarcely tell you,” said Dupin, as he finished the perusal of my notes, “that this is a far more intricate case than that of the Rue Morgue; from which it differs in one important respect. This is an ordinary, although an atrocious instance of crime. There is nothing peculiarly outré about it. You will observe that, for this reason, the mystery has been considered easy, when, for this reason, it should have been considered difficult, of solution.

And yet, despite its ordinariness and therefore its complexity, Dupin can solve the whole thing without leaving his home. From what he has read, he can recreate the entire affair in his mind—and names the murderer.

Poe thought this was an even more interesting story than his previous detective tale—partially because he had based it on a real tragedy, the murder of a beautiful young woman, a tobacco store employee, named Mary Cecilia Rogers in 1941. Her body was found in the Hudson.

Poe believed that, in fictionalizing her story, he was getting at the heart of the mystery, not unlike his detective. He attempted to sell it to magazines claiming that he had solved the mystery of Mary’s death, via his story.

The impertinence of that claim aside, Poe believed that there was much more to represent, regarding an amateur detective, an armchair detective’s ability to think through a crime to the point of solving it.

His final Dupin story, “The Purloined Letter,” is the epitome of this interest. By this time, Dupin is so well known that the police prefect asks for his help. The queen has had a letter stolen from her bedroom by a sneaky associate of hers, who has now been using it to blackmail her. The police have searched that man’s rooms but have found nothing. They are desperate.

The prefect returns a while later, promising Dupin 50,000 francs if he can help them locate the letter. Dupin asks the prefect to write the check right there, and he does. At that moment, Dupin produces the letter, himself.

Dupin’s friend is astounded—how had he found it? Dupin explains that he had divined that the blackmailer had anticipated that the police would search high and low for the note, and so hid it in plain sight.

Dupin had visited the blackmailer and searched for a letter in an obvious place. He found it—noticing that it was disguised by having been folded inside out and re-sealed it with a new seal. He returns the next day, and, in time with a distraction he has arranged, switches out the letter for an imitation he has made himself.

That year, in 1844, Poe wrote to a friend that “The Purloined Letter” was the best of his three tales of ratiocination. And he was right. The scholar Thomas Ollive Mabbit suggests that its superiority lies in its complete move away from the sensational towards the intellectual.

Indeed, let’s observe the progress of the Dupin stories. The first one, a true “sensation” story, was designed to shock as much as amaze. The second combines the sensation of the first (the surprising, gruesome discovery of the corpse of a beautiful woman) with tremendous mental gymnastics. And finally, “The Purloined Letter” is purely an intellectual exercise—the epitome of the detective story as a puzzle, a riddle, a game. It is because of this final story, more than the others, that Dupin changed the course of mystery fiction.

There were several mediocre film adaptations of the first two stories, but that’s not what I mean. Not only did he create the gentleman sleuth archetype which would become so ubiquitous in mystery fiction’s Golden Age during the first half of the twentieth century, but he also provided a model for the detective story to be, first and foremost, more concerned with the puzzle of the mystery, than the material concerns of the associated crime or death.

Most obviously, though, Dupin provided a template for what the intellectual sleuth would look like—a template that was borrowed, time and time again. Dupin is a brilliant man whose roommate chronicles his incredible feats of crime-solving, most of which he does not need to leave his home to complete.

Years later, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”

Indeed, Doyle construed his detective Sherlock Holmes as an intellectual descendant of Holmes, having Watson (who also participates in a lineage offered by the Dupin stories, but of Dupin’s supportive narrator/chronicler and friend) cite Dupin upon first witnessing Holmes’s deductive genius.’‘You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin,’” he tells Sherlock Holmes in their inaugural novella, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887. ‘“I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”’

And yet Holmes is snide about this bit of praise: “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin. Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”

Except, of course, that he was. Holmes doesn’t know it, but he, himself, wouldn’t have existed without Dupin.

Virtually none of the detectives in the stories we know today would have existed without him.

Thank you.