The Murders in the Rue Morgue
by Edgar Allan Poe
The Murders in the Rue Morgue Introduction
In A Nutshell
We feel a little sorry for Edgar Allan Poe. No, really, we do. Sure, he's got a good gig, what with having a Simpsons Halloween Special based on his poem "The Raven," an entire CD of songs inspired by his short story collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and about a million late-night horror flicks assigned to his name. But what Poe doesn't get enough credit for is his part in inventing the whole "others-see-I-observe-elementary-my-dear-Watson" school of detecting in literature. Everyone knows the name of Sherlock Holmes – heck, he's the main character in a major movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. But Poe got there first, with his superior, and yet brilliant French detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, the hero of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."
In fact, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in 1841 in Philadelphia literary journal Graham's Magazine and then in Poe's own 1845 short story collection Tales of Mystery and the Imagination, is one of the first detective stories, ever. The whole idea of the detective was still new at this point. The first detective agency in the world was founded in Paris in 1817 by all-around adventurer and awesome guy François Vidocq, just 24 years before Poe published his story. In fact, many people claim that the character of Dupin himself is based on Vidocq's diaries (source).
As a writer of fiction, Poe took the process of using clues to figure out the identity of a criminal and used it in creating what he called "tales of ratiocination" (i.e., stories of deduction, in which there's a mystery, and it's the job of the protagonist to look at all the evidence and reason his way to the answer). In Poe's Dupin stories, it's not just the main man who is trying to work out who the culprit is; it's also us, the readers. Anything in the story, no matter how minor, could be evidence of whodunit, and we're supposed to use our knowledge of human nature to figure out what the answer has to be. (Although, we have to warn you right now that the murderer in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is not someone we ever would have guessed.) "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" is a story, sure, but it's also a challenge, not just for the hero, but also for the reader.
By the way, Poe wrote two more Dupin stories, "The Mystery of Marie Rogêt" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844). Just in case you can't get enough.
Why Should I Care?
Somehow, it never gets old, even though we've seen the same scene in a million movies. Our hero, sitting across the card table from his nemesis, plays a tense hand of poker. A bead of sweat drips down the side of our hero's face as he looks at his hand. Should he call, raise, or fold? The player can be Bond in Casino Royale. It can be Brad Pitt conning a bunch of hapless players in the opening scenes of Ocean's Eleven. Or it can be Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, freaking out an outmatched Kenneth in 30 Rock.
And it all comes down to the same thing: he's got to choose something. The stakes are high, and it's not just a matter of what he's holding, or what he might get from the dealer. He has to take into account his opponent's hand: can he read the guy's face, can he find a signal that will tell him if his opponent has good cards or bad cards?
This is essentially how Poe sets up "The Murders in the Rue Morgue": he agrees with us that this spectacle (though he uses the card game "whist" as his example) is awesome. Poe really admires a certain kind of mind. He is interested when a card player can look at his opponents' faces and his own cards and decide who's got to be holding the aces. Come, Poe invites, if you like a good poker player, you'll love my detective hero, Dupin. Dupin's giant brain allows him to find everybody's secrets and to determine whether he should bluff or call. Dupin's so great at combining reason and intuition that he doesn't even need games like poker; he can use his superior intellect to fight crime.
Even we humble types, who always lose at poker and who've never had the opportunity to solve a murder, have to admit that it would be great to be able to read people the way Dupin can. He's not too sociable, but he's a genius at observing people and telling what they're thinking.
And Poe gets that, with a guy as awesome as Dupin, it's natural for us to envy him. So he gives us a deep look into how Dupin's mind works. After all, the more we know about him, the better we'll be able to imitate his way of thinking. This story is like a brainteaser, meant to step up our own powers of observation and deduction. Who knows, after reading "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," maybe you'll find yourselves cleaning up at your next round of Texas Hold'em.