Experimenting with many different fictional forms, such as the gothic tale, science fiction, occult fantasies, and satire, Poe gained great recognition in the early 1840’s for his creation of a genre that has grown in popularity ever since: the so-called tale of ratiocination, or detective story, which features an amateur sleuth who, by superior deductive abilities, outsmarts criminals and outclasses the police. Such stories as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” created a small sensation in the United States when they were first published. “The Purloined Letter,” the third and final story in the Dupin series, has been the subject of much critical analysis as a model of ironic and tightly structured plot.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is the most popular of the three because it combines horrifying, inexplicable events with astonishing feats of deductive reasoning. The narrator, the forerunner of Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories, meets Auguste Dupin in this story and very early recognizes that he has a double personality, a bi-part soul, for he is both wildly imaginative and coldly analytical. The reader’s first encounter with Dupin’s deductive ability takes place when Dupin seems to read his companion’s mind, responding to something that the narrator has only been thinking. Dupin, as he explains the elaborate method whereby he followed the narrator’s thought processes by noticing small details and associating them, is the first of a long history of fictional detectives who take great pleasure in recounting the means by which they solved a hidden mystery.
The heart of the story, as it was to become the heart of practically every traditional detective story since, is not the action of the crime but rather Dupin’s extended explanation of how he solved it. The points about the murder that baffle the police are precisely those that enable Dupin to master the case: the contradiction of several neighbors who describe hearing a voice in several different foreign languages and the fact that there seems no possible means of entering or exiting the room where the murders took place. Dupin accounts for the first contradiction by deducing that the criminal must have been an animal; the second he explains by following a mode of reasoning based on a process of elimination to determine that apparent impossibilities are, in reality, possible after all. When Dupin reveals that an escaped orangutan did the killing, the Paris Prefect of Police complains that Dupin should mind his own business. Dupin is content to have outwitted the prefect in his own realm; descendants of Dupin have been outwitting police inspectors ever since.
This tale of ratiocination opens with a long discussion of the differences between the truly analytical mind and the mind that is possessed of great powers of calculation. What this long expository section sets up is the notion that persons possessed of this keen analytical faculty are different from other human beings. The story is narrated from the first-person point of view by a nameless young man who is residing in Paris during the spring and summer of an unnamed year sometime during the 1830’s. He has come to Paris, it is implied, to make some discoveries about the world and about himself. During the course of his visit, he encounters in a bookshop Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. About Dupin very little information is provided; the reader is given to understand, however, that Dupin is an individual who has fallen on hard times and who chooses to live a more or less shadowy existence. The narrator, fascinated by the general character and demeanor of Dupin, proposes that they spend much of their time together, and, because he has some financial independence, he and Dupin rent apartments together in an old deserted mansion in the Fauborg St. Germain section of Paris.
Together, the two of them develop a lifestyle that involves remaining indoors shuttered away from...
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