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The Murders in the Rue Morgue

by Edgar Allan Poe

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In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," why does it begin with a lengthy comparison between chess and whist?

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The long comparison between whist and chess is meant to highlight the attributes needed by the successful detective. Though chess is usually rated more highly than whist as an intellectually challenging game that requires acute concentration, the narrator argues that whist (a card game) actually requires a more comprehensive and...

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The long comparison between whist and chess is meant to highlight the attributes needed by the successful detective. Though chess is usually rated more highly than whist as an intellectually challenging game that requires acute concentration, the narrator argues that whist (a card game) actually requires a more comprehensive and sophisticated set of skills. A successful whist player needs to be able to concentrate not only on the game itself but on the analysis of the psychology of his opponents, and he must be aware of factors external to the rules of the game. As the narrator puts it:

But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences. So, perhaps, do his companions; and 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. 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. He examines the countenance of his partner, comparing it carefully with that of each of his opponents.

The whist player must be a keen observer of human nature and able to put together and interpret any number of seemingly random gestures and events. This makes him superior to the chess player, who only needs to worry about the logic of the game board. The detective, like a whist player, must be able to analyze human psychology and assemble seemingly unconnected facts into a coherent whole in order to solve a crime.

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The narrator begins the story as if he is writing an essay on the subject of what Poe often called ratiocination, which means something like logical analysis and solution of problems. Poe's purpose seems to be to establish a strong contrast between the opening and the story he tells ostensibly as a mere illustration of the principle he has been discussing in his essay. The reader is beguiled into thinking that this is just an philosophical essay, an intellectual exercise; but then Poe slowly leads the reader into the scene of the crime, and the story gradually becomes more and more emotionally moving until the actual crime is described in detail. The actual murders are, of course, the high point of the story, but Poe designs his story in such a way that the horrific scene is not described until near the end. (Truman Capote did something similar to this in his true-crime novel In Cold Blood.) From a discussion of things like whist, chess and checkers, the narrative has led the reader into a nightmarish scene in which an orangutan from Borneo in what is now Indonesia is attacking two screaming women with a straightedge razor. In this way the horror of the actual bloody massacre is enhanced by contrast with the calm discussion of the process of logical thinking.

The opening sentence reads:

THE MENTAL FEATURES discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. 

Then after a lengthy discussion of analysis, or ratiocination, the narrator writes:

The narrative which follows will appear to the reader somewhat in the light of a commentary upon the propositions just advanced.

So the subject is ostensibly analysis, including a comparison of chess and checkers as well as the card game of whist; while the story of the murders in the Rue Morgue is only "a commentary upon the propositions just advanced." In addition to creating a strong contrast between cold reason and savage emotion, Poe is introducing C. Auguste Dupin, a very unusual character who became Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for his world-famous character Sherlock Holmes. 

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