When you hear the word “detective”, who comes to mind? Sherlock Holmes? Nancy Drew? Dick Tracy? Scooby Doo? All are certainly worthy of the title. And I think you’d be hard pressed to find many people who don’t consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes the quintessential deducing detective.
We first meet Sherlock in 1887. His premiere case is “A Study in Scarlet”. But 46 years earlier, the world was introduced to the very FIRST literary ‘detective’ — C. Auguste Dupin — in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.
Poe has been called the “father of the detective story”, inventing a sharp-witted, observant ‘detective’ character before the word “detective” even existed.
Edgar was born the 19th of January, 1809, and to celebrate Poe’s 207th birthday, I spent part of yesterday afternoon curled up with my gorgeous Canterbury Classics edition of “Edgar Allan Poe: Stories and Poems”, rereading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, and finding myself surprised at just how shockingly similar Sherlock Holmes is to Monsieur Dupin.
If you haven’t read “Murders”, or it’s been a long time, you can read it here in its entirety. It’s a classic detective story and so reminiscent of the crime-solving world that Conan Doyle wrote for Holmes and Watson that there can be zero doubt about Poe’s influence in the creation of the most popular fictional detective in history.
The story is about a seemingly unsolvable crime: A mother and daughter found brutally murdered — the daughter stuffed feet-first up a chimney, and the mother, hurled from a window, found broken and decapitated below. The doors were still locked from the inside, and no apparent motive for the crime. There is evidence of a great struggle, but they weren’t robbed — nearly 4000 gold francs are found in the bedroom.
Keenly observant, highly intelligent Dupin and his companion (the story’s narrator) manage to do what the police can’t — solve the crime by practicing what I believe would become Sherlock Holmes’s most famous advice: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
From “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”:
“The impossibility of egress, by means already stated, being thus absolute, we are reduced to windows. Through those of the front room no one could have escaped without notice from the crowd in the street. The murderers must have passed, then, through those of the back room. Now, brought to this conclusion in so unequivocal a manner as we are, it is not our part, as reasoners, to reject it on account of apparent impossibilities. It is only left for us to prove that these apparent ‘impossibilities’ are, in reality, not such.”
“My own examination was somewhat more particular, and was so for the reason I have just given–because here it was, I knew, that all apparent impossibilities must be proved to be not such in reality.”
I can’t help but think that Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes quote was inspired by these two passages from Poe’s original detective tale.
Dupin also appears twice more in Poe’s writings: “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”. But it’s our first introduction to the character which cements his place in detective fiction history.
While the dénouement of “Murders” is exciting and brilliant, and set the stage for every great detective story written since 1841, it’s really the narrator’s introduction to the tale that I most admire. It is also what I feel is Poe’s greatest contribution to what we now recognize as the definitive characteristic of a “detective”.
Style-wise, the intro to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” actually reminds me of Poe’s lesser-known but highly important work, “The Philosophy of Composition” — an essay that discusses the writing of his most famous poem, “The Raven”. (It was also the topic of my Freshly Pressed post, btw!).
So Poe prepares us for his daring murder mystery with a little lesson about being observant — arguably the most important trait of any good detective. Using the games of draughts (checkers) and chess as examples, Poe explains what we’ve come to admire most about Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character — the ability to see what most people miss, and deduce an accurate conclusion.
He says that the key to winning isn’t always just about how you play the game. Some of the best strategy comes from how well you observe your opponents and what THEY are doing. “In draughts, where the moves are unique and have but little variation, the probabilities of inadvertence are diminished, and the mere attention being left comparatively unemployed, what advantages are obtained by either party are obtained by superior acumen.”
Acumen is defined as the ability to make quick decisions and good judgments.
Poe continues, “Deprived of ordinary resources, the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not unfrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods (sometimes indeed absurdly simple ones) by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation.”
To observe attentively is to remember distinctly.
“… to have a retentive memory, and to proceed by ‘the book’, are points commonly regarded as the sum total of good playing. But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced.”
Poe continues by laying out a host of “observations and inferences” that the player makes.
…the difference in the extent of the information obtained, lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation.
He says, “The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe. Our player confines himself not at all; nor, because the game is the object, does he reject deductions from things external to the game.” If you’re a fan of BBC’s “Sherlock”, you’ll notice that this is exactly the type of deducing that Benedict Cumberbatch’s intrepid detective is famous for. He doesn’t just SEE. He OBSERVES. No detail is too small.
Poe: “He examines the countenance of his partner, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents. He considers the mode of assorting the cards in each hand; often counting trump by trump, and honor by honor, through the glances bestowed by their holders upon each. He notes every variation of face as the play progresses, gathering a fund of thought from the differences in the expression of certainty, of surprise, of triumph, or of chagrin. From the manner of gathering up a trick he judges whether the person taking it can make another in the suit. He recognizes what is played through feint, by the air with which it is thrown upon the table. A casual or inadvertent word; the accidental dropping or turning of a card, with the accompanying anxiety or carelessness in regard to its concealment; the counting of the tricks, with the order of the arrangement; embarrassment, hesitation, eagerness or trepidation–all afford, to his apparently intuitive perception, indications of the true state of affairs.”
With such sound, intelligent advice, you’d think that Poe would have been one hell of a successful gambler.
“The analytical power should not be confounded with ample ingenuity; for while the analyst is necessarily ingenious, the ingenious man is often remarkably incapable of analysis. The constructive or combining power, by which ingenuity is usually manifested, and to which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ, supposing it a primitive faculty, has been so frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered otherwise upon idiocy, as to have attracted general observation among writers on morals. Between ingenuity and the analytic ability there exists a difference far greater, indeed, than that between the fancy and the imagination, but of a character very strictly analogous. It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”
Poe’s character Dupin then proceeds to apply these general rules of observation and deduction to the unsolved murder case, and in short order, he solves the crime. Much like an episode of CSI, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” takes place AFTER the murder, and focuses on HOW the killer carried out the murder, rather than dwelling on WHY it all happened in the first place. In this particular tale, the WHY is a moot point. And what we end up with is a detective story, not a tale of murder. Those are two very different things.
A murder story requires more imagination than critical thinking. And a straight-up detective story is a brain exercise, a lesson in observation. The former stimulates the eyes, the latter stimulates the mind. And while Edgar Allan wrote his fair share of gothic horror too, he infused all of his writing with this higher level of intellectual thought, and that’s what I love most about Poe.
The Boston-born writer is remembered mostly for his suspenseful melancholy horror pieces, like “The Raven“, “Pit and the Pendulum”, and “Masque of the Red Death”. But it’s his contribution to the detective world that he most deserves recognition for. Without Poe, we would have no Sherlock Holmes. No Hercule Poirot. No Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher or Nancy Drew. None of the temptingly delicious delves into the analytical world of mystery that we all so enjoy today. It was Edgar Allan Poe who pioneered the way, opening up an avenue of entertainment that, in my opinion, changed the face of literature and cinema more so than any other writer.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said, “Where was the detective story before Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” I don’t know, Artie. Perhaps it was in the middle of an incredible altercation with a large, fulvous Ourang-Outang in the Rue Morgue of Paris…