"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" starts out with a proposition: there are two modes of untangling a problem. The first is that of the chess player, who looks at all the pieces on a board and decides, from the way everything is laid out, what to do next. The second is that of the whist player (whist, by the way, is like bridge, a game with four players that depends on working out what cards your opponents are holding). The whist player not only has to memorize the rules and moves of the game (like the chess player) but she also has to figure out, or deduce, from watching her fellow players, what cards they have. This kind of analysis takes both imagination and reason – and it's this kind of intelligence that we're supposed to see in this story. (Check out our "In a Nutshell" for more on Poe and "tales of ratiocination" to see why this argument is important.)
If you're looking for someone who has this whist-player-style analytical intelligence, look no further than our young, sarcastic protagonist, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, a Parisian gentleman fallen on hard times. Dupin's love of detecting leads him to a case that both the newspapers and the police themselves have declared unsolvable: the murders in the Rue Morgue (a.k.a. Morgue Street).
Here's what we know about this unsolvable case: In the middle of the night, the neighborhood of Quartier St. Roch is awakened by a series of screams coming from a house on the Rue Morgue. A bunch of concerned neighbors and policemen pry open the front door of the house. As they run up the stairs, they hear sounds of struggle and two weird voices, one gruff, the other shrill. Witnesses later agree that the gruff voice is that of a Frenchman, but the shrill voice could be a woman. She could be speaking English, Russian, Italian, or Spanish – none of the witnesses can agree. All the noises stop by the time they reach the second landing.
Once the neighbors break into the fourth story apartment (where the screams came from), they find the rooms totally destroyed. The body of resident Mademoiselle L'Espanaye is stuffed up the chimney with bruises on her neck. Also found are two sacks of cash with four thousand francs, and the corpse of the murdered girl's mother is lying on the rear stone courtyard. The bones on Madame L'Espanaye's right side are shattered and her neck has been cut so badly that her head falls off when the neighbors try to lift her body. They also discover that both the room's windows are sealed from the inside, the doors are locked, and there's no way for anyone to have escaped without being seen by the neighbors coming up the stairs.
The police are completely confused. Even though there's no evidence against him, they arrest a bank clerk named Le Bon, who brought the two women the four thousand francs three days before the murders. The police try to seem as though they're making progress, but they're not. There's no apparent motive, the murders were brutal, and no one can figure out what language was spoken or where the killer(s) went once the neighborhood posse arrived.
This is one tough case. But Dupin laughs at the impossible. He thinks it might be impossible for people stuck in their ways, like the police, to solve this case, but it's not for him. Also, he owes Le Bon, the current suspect, a favor, so he uses his connections with the chief of police to get into the crime scene.
Dupin identifies five points as essential to the killer's identity: he has a shrill voice with no words, the agility to get in through the window, superhuman strength, inhuman cruelty, and no motive. Using this evidence, Dupin comes to a conclusion that he proves to the narrator using the evidence of giant fingerprints on Mademoiselle L'Espanaye's neck. The prints are consistent with a certain species of ape native to Southeast Asia – the orangutan! (Or, as Poe spells it, Ourang-Outang.) The first voice of the Frenchman was from a man who witnessed the murders and who, although innocent, has not wanted to come forward with his story for fear of being implicated in his ape's activities. To lure the Frenchman out, Dupin places an ad in a newspaper popular with sailors advertising – get this – a found Ourang-Outang.
The Frenchman (a sailor) duly comes by Dupin's house to pick up his lost ape, and Dupin says he can pick up the animal after the man tells all he knows about the murders in the Rue Morgue. The sailor decides to confess all, since he doesn't want to see an innocent man (Le Bon) punished: the orangutan is his. Here's his story:
One night while the sailor is out partying with his buds, the ape escapes from its closet and starts playing with the sailor's shaving things. The sailor frightens the orangutan while it is holding a straight razor, and the orangutan bounds out through an open window, razor in hand. The sailor follows, but can't catch him.
Attracted by the light on in Mademoiselle L'Espanaye's apartment, the orangutan climbs up a lightning rod, swings across to a the shutter, and enters the room through an open window. The two L'Espanaye women are sitting with their backs turned to the window, when the orangutan suddenly grabs the older lady's hair and starts pretending that he's her barber. This is the origin of the horrible screams that wake the neighborhood. Her visible fear angers the ape, who slashes her throat with the razor. The sight of blood angers him even more, and he turns on the daughter, strangling her with his bare hands.
Meanwhile, the sailor has been watching all of this helplessly from the window. The orangutan sees him and suddenly becomes fearful. He tries to hide the bodies by putting Mademoiselle L'Espanaye in the chimney and throwing Madame L'Espanaye out the window. As the ape approaches the window, corpse in hand, the sailor is so freaked out that he slides down the lightning rod and runs away. And that's the sailor's story.
Dupin and the narrator use the sailor's evidence to get Le Bon off the hook. The sailor finds his ape (we don't know how) and sells him for a lot of money to a zoo. The Prefect of Police is a little miffed that Dupin solved the case where he couldn't, so he accuses Dupin of butting in. Dupin is full of smug superiority and ends the story with some snarky comments about the police chief, saying that the chief is cunning in a way, but not imaginative. Dupin is clearly gloating on the inside at the end of the story. To be fair, though, if we were smart enough to figure out this tricky case, we'd be pretty full of ourselves, too.