Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Genesis of Mystery

In 1841, a full forty five years before Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet, the first of his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Edgar Allen Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. This was the first of three mysteries featuring his own great detective, Sir C. Auguste Dupin. Not only did Poe invent the genre, Holme’s deductive technique bears an uncanny resemblance to Dupin’s method of inductive reasoning.

rue_morgue-title-pageDue to its being written over a century and a half ago, the story has become fairly difficult to read, due to the ever changing English language. Long ago, I read an abridged version in the Classics Illustrated comic book, and loved it. I decided to see if I could take the original and bring it up to date without significantly changing it. Having done so, I found that, like Sherlock Holmes mysteries, not all the clues needed to solve the mystery were given before the detective revealed the solution. Therefore, I took it upon myself to move some of them earlier in the story, making it work better as a true mystery.

The resulting text in its entirety is available on Kindle: Kindle Edition

Here is Poe’s introduction to Dupin where he uses an anecdote to show the detective’s amazing powers of deductive reasoning:

An example of the character of his remarks at the periods in question will best convey the idea. We were strolling one night down a long, dirty street in the vicinity of the Palais Royal. Both occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once Dupin broke forth with these words:

“He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better in a variety show.”

“There can be no doubt of that,” I replied unwittingly, not at first observing, so much had I been absorbed in reflection, the extraordinary manner in which the speaker had chimed in with my meditations. In an instant later I recollected myself, and my astonishment was profound.

“Dupin,” said I, gravely, “this is beyond comprehension. I am amazed, and can scarcely believe my ears. How could you possibly know I was thinking of…” Here I paused, to ascertain beyond a doubt whether he really knew of whom I thought.

“Of Chantilly,” said he, “why do you pause? You were thinking to yourself that his diminutive stature made him unfit for tragedy.”

This was precisely what I had been reflecting on. Chantilly was a former cobbler on the Rue St. Denis who, becoming stage crazy, had attempted the title role in Crébillon’s tragedy Xerxes, and been notoriously satirized for his pains.

“Tell me, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, “the method—if there is one—that enabled you to fathom my thoughts in this way.” In fact I was even more startled than I was willing to admit.

“It was the fruit seller,” replied my friend, “who brought you to the conclusion that the cobbler was not tall enough to play Xerxes or anyone like him.”

“The fruiterer!—you astonish me—I know no fruiterer whomsoever.”

“The man who ran up against you as we entered the street, perhaps fifteen minutes ago.”

I then remembered that a fruiterer, carrying a large basket of apples on his head, had nearly knocked me down, by accident, as we passed from the Rue Coquillière into the thoroughfare where we stood; but what this had to do with Chantilly I could not possibly understand.

There was not a particle of fraudulence about Dupin. “I will explain,” he said, “and so that you may understand clearly, we will retrace the course of your meditations, from the moment I spoke to you until that of the encounter with the fruiterer in question. The larger links of the chain are these: Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichols, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the cobble stones, and the fruiterer.”

There are few people who have not, at some point in their lives, amused themselves by retracing the steps by which their minds have reached particular conclusions. The occupation is often full of interest and one who attempts it for the first time is astonished by the apparently limitless distance and incoherence between the starting-point and the goal. Imagine, then, my amazement when I heard the Frenchman say what he had just said. I could not help acknowledging that he had spoken the truth. He continued:

“We had been talking of horses, if I remember rightly, just before leaving the Rue Coquillière. This was the last subject we discussed. As we crossed into this street, a fruiterer, with a large basket on his head, brushing quickly past us, pushed you onto a pile of paving stones piled up at a spot where the causeway is undergoing repair. You stepped upon one of the loose peices, slipped, slightly strained your ankle, appeared annoyed, muttered a few words, turned to look at the pile, and then proceeded on in silence. I was not paying particularly attention to what you did, but observation has become a kind of need in me, lately. You kept your eyes upon the ground—glancing, with a irritable expression, at the holes and ruts in the pavement, so that I saw you were still thinking of the stones, until we reached the little alley called Lamartine, which has been paved, as an experiment, with the overlapping and riveted blocks. Here your countenance brightened up, and, seeing your lips move, I could not doubt that you murmured the word ‘stereotomy,’ a term falsely applied to this type of pavement. I knew that you could not say ‘stereotomy’ to yourself without being brought to think of atomies, and thus of the theories of Epicurus; and since, when we discussed this subject not very long ago, I mentioned to you how singularly, yet with how little notice, the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with confirmation in recent advances in the science of nebular origins, I felt that you could not avoid casting your eyes upward to the great nebula in Orion, and I certainly expected that you would do so. You did look up, and I was sure that I had correctly followed your thought process. But in that bitter tirade against Chantilly, which appeared in yesterday’s ‘Musæe,’ the satirist, making some disgraceful allusions to the cobbler’s change of name upon assuming the tragedy, quoted a Latin line about which we have often conversed. I mean the line ‘Perdidit antiquum litera sonum’. I had told you that this was a reference to Orion; and, from certain sharp points connected with my explanation, I was sure that you could not have forgotten it. It was clear, therefore, that you would not fail to combine the two ideas of Orion and Chantilly. That you did combine them I saw by the smile which passed over your lips. You thought of the poor cobbler’s destruction. So far, your gait had been stooping, but now I saw you draw yourself up to your full height. I was then sure that you reflected upon the diminutive figure of Chantilly. At this point I interrupted your meditations to remark that as, in fact, he was a very little fellow—Chantilly—and he would do better at the Thæætre des Variætæs.”

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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