These Are the Stories of Edgar Allan Poe*

As this is posted, it’s 176 years since Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue was first published in Graham’s Magazine. This is the story that introduced the world to C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s detective. In the story, Dupin solves the murders of Madame L’Espanaye, and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye. This is often said to be the first ‘real’ detective story, although there are some who argue otherwise.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Poe, it’s hard to deny his influence on crime fiction. Just a quick look at The Murders in the Rue Morgue offers glimpses of several tropes that we see in later crime fiction.

For example, Dupin’s adventures are narrated by a friend and sidekick. Although this particular narrator isn’t named, the approach to storytelling is reflected in lots of other, more modern, crime fiction. To offer just a few examples, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories can tell you that they are, by and large, told by Holmes’ sidekick, Dr. Watson. Several of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories are narrated by his friend and sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings. There are also a few in which the narrator is someone else.  And, much more recently, Chris Grabenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle novels are narrated in first person by Ceepak’s sidekick, Danny Boyle. In all of these cases (and they’re not the only one), we have a narrator who tells the story in first person, and gives the reader a different perspective on the main sleuth. This allows the author to share what the main sleuth is like without going into too much narrative detail. It also allows the author to share the sleuth’s thinking at a strategic point (more on that shortly).

In The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin solves the murders through a process of logical reasoning and deduction. He doesn’t make claims based just on superficial evidence. Rather, he uses logic to put the facts together. In this, we see the beginnings of the sort of detective Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes turned out to be. Holmes might beg to differ – in fact, he does in A Study in Scarlet. He sees Dupin as not nearly as much of a genius as it may seem. That said, though, there are several parallels between Dupin’s way of putting evidence together, and that of Holmes. You might even argue that there are traces of this approach in some of the Ellery Queen stories.

Dupin doesn’t share his thought processes with the reader as he solves the mystery of the two murders in the story. Instead, he waits until the end to explain how he reached the conclusion. And we see that storytelling strategy in a great deal of crime fiction. For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he admits to liking an audience. Several of the Poirot novels (I’m thinking, for instance, of Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Five Little Pigs) include dramatic ‘big reveal’ scenes. The suspects are gathered, and Poirot names the murder, and then explains his thinking. Some of Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver novels are like that, and so are some of Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn novels. That dramatic scene in the drawing room, or a lounge, or some other place, where all of the suspects come together, is a trope that’s closely associated with the Golden Age. But it’s in more modern crime fiction, too. For instance, Margaret Maron’s One Coffee With has a similar sort of scene.

One of the witnesses in The Murders in the Rue Morgue is a clerk named Adolphe Le Bon. Due to a series of circumstances, he’s arrested for the crime and imprisoned. He claims he’s not guilty, and Dupin clears his name. This trope – the innocent person who’s wrongly accused – has become an integral part of the genre. Golden Age/classic, police procedural, PI, cosy, just about all of the sub-genres include plenty of examples of stories where the wrong person is accused, if not actually convicted. There are far too many examples for me to list them here. But they all add tension to the story.

Does this mean that The Murders in the Rue Morgue is without problems? No. Many people have argued that the explanation – the real story of the murders – is too improbable. What’s more, neither Dupin’s character nor that of his narrator is what we would now call ‘fleshed out.’ The focus in the story is entirely on the intellectual mystery. Modern readers would certainly notice this, and might call the story lacking on that score. There’s also the issue of the way the police are portrayed in the story. Poe doesn’t treat them with a great deal of respect. And there are several ‘isms’ in the story that modern readers would notice.

All of this said, though, The Murders in the Rue Morgue laid the groundwork for the modern detective story. We have a set of murders, a sleuth who makes sense of the evidence, and an invitation to the reader to ‘match wits’ with that sleuth. On that score, Poe’s work arguably deserves recognition. And, if you haven’t read the story, you might want to, just to see how it all arguably started.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lou Reed’s Edgar Poe.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Chris Grabenstein, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Margaret Maron, Patricia Wentworth

25 responses to “These Are the Stories of Edgar Allan Poe*

  1. Great post Margot! I love Poe’s stories and he really does deserve the credit for setting up so many things we now regard as standard in detective fiction!

  2. mudpuddle

    i just reread it a couple of weeks ago and was surprised that i’d forgotten how much gore there was in it… that, also is one of the features found in ensuing mysteries… or at least in some of them…

    • Now, that’s an interesting point, Mudpuddle. Certainly Poe didn’t shrink from violence in that story. And it’s interesting how much violence – and sometimes even gore – there is in some of today’s mysteries. You make an interesting connection there.

  3. I definitely want to read this, Margot. I’m a huge fan of Poe’s work. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great way of linking Poe to modern writers! Laura Lippman, in one of her Tess Monahan Baltimore mysteries, built the story round Poe’s grave and the myserious visitor. It’s an excellent book: In a Strange City.

    • Thank you, Moira – on both counts. The Tess Monoghan series has a lot of fine entries in it, so I’m glad you filled in that gap. And what a great ‘Baltimore’ sort of setting!

  5. Ann

    Interesting post.

  6. kathy d

    Going down Memory Lane here. I remember reading this story and it sparking an interest in reading mysteries. I do not remember the gore, but I certainly do remember the culprit and the resolution. It was mind-boggling, but a lot of fun to read the conclusion.
    Does it matter if it was truly realistic? I don’t think so, not for those of us who enjoyed it it doesn’t. And it’s stood the test of time.
    On the question of it being the first crime fiction story, other works have recently popped up which could contest that claim. Murders in the Rue Morgue was published in 1841.
    For example, The Rector of Veilbye was published in 1829, and 10 years earlier, Mademoiselle de Seuderi was published. See the excellent blog “Crime Segments” about crime fiction in the early days.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that not everyone agrees that this was the first detective story. And it’s true; the solution is very different, and very different from what one might think. As you say, for a lot of people, it doesn’t make much of a difference that the story’s explanation isn’t, well, typical.

  7. Lovely post on Poe’s legacy. Thanks Margot.

  8. Keishon

    Great post and thanks for the write up on Poe, Margot. New readers are created everyday and my hope is that new readers (and old) will give him a shot. I enjoyed his work and plan to read more.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Keishon. And you’re right; you never know when someone will give an author a try for the first time. I’m glad you enjoyed Poe’s work.

  9. Col

    Thanks for posting, I haven’t read Poe and TBH I’m not really tempted.

  10. Very interesting, Margot! I always feel particularly grumpy when I’m forced to admit how influential Poe was, especially on Holmes, because I really don’t think the Poe stories are a patch on the Conan Doyle ones. But OK, yes, he did it first, I suppose… (but ACD did it better! 😉 ) However I did like The Murders in the Rue Morgue more than the other ones, although the solution does go just a teensy bit over the credibility line! Can you imagine a modern author trying to get away with that? 😉

    • Haha! No, I really can’t, FictionFan! But, as you say, it’s a good story in a lot of ways. And, whether you like Poe or not, he blazed the trail, as the saying goes. Conan Doyle took that and shaped it into something a lot of people think is much more a real detective story. You’re not the only one who prefers Conan Doyle, by the way, to Poe when it comes to the detective story. But I think we do have to admit Poe’s legacy. Like it? Perhaps not. Admit it, well…. 😉

  11. tracybham

    I am not much interested in reading Poe’s stories, Margot, but I do acknowledge his influence. Very interesting post.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links 4/17/17 – Where Genres Collide

  13. I really like Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, but I am not yet reading this story. Anyway, I will allot time to read this because I know that it’s interesting and reading this is worth it!

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