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Edgar Allan Poe

The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1841

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Edgar Allan Poe, known as the “father” of modern detective fiction, debuted what’s considered one of the first detective stories with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The short story was originally published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841. From its pages spring the hallmarks of any crime novel: the mystifying brilliance of the detective, the doting investigative partner, the enigmatic puzzle, the trail of clue misdirection, and the host of failed conjectures posed by those generally considered more experienced. One hundred years later, Howard Haycraft observed that Poe’s inaugural works in this genre “established once and for all the mould and pattern for thousands upon thousands of works of police fiction which have followed” (Craighill, Stephanie. “The Influence of Duality and Poe’s Notion of the Bi-Part Soul on the Genesis of Detective Fiction in the Nineteenth Century,” 2010).

Poe’s first installation of detective stories, also dubbed “The Dupin Tales,” is articulated in the first person from an unnamed narrator’s point of view. From the start, the supremacy of rationalist thought emerges to define the genre itself. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is followed by “The Mystery of Mary Rogêt” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844). Poe referred to his detective stories as his “tales of ratiocination,” or tales of logical reasoning.

This guide references the Literature Page 2012 e-book edition.

Content Warning: This text contains descriptions of physical violence, including murder and human dismemberment.

The text prefaces the narrative with a discussion of the analytical mind and compares a chess player to a whist player (whist is a trick-taking card game). The author differentiates the ability to calculate from the ability to analyze. In comparing the two players, the author maintains that a chess player relies on retentive memory and will succeed if the game play is uniform. Conversely, a whist player must also play their opponent in addition to the game at hand by using deductive reason. While both players rely on their mental faculties, the whist player must consider more external variables than just the game itself: “[T]he 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” (2). In this sense, the whist player is the stronger of the two because true analysts must possess both analytical abilities as well as ingenuity, or creativity. Readers are cautioned to “observe attentively” and are encouraged to employ their supreme faculty of reason to question that which appears to be “absolute” (2).

The narrative begins in Paris at some undisclosed time in the 1800s. The unnamed narrator unexpectedly meets Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin at an offbeat library on Rue Montmartre (rue is the French word for “street”). Dupin, a refined yet world-weary man deflated from his reduced socioeconomic status, cares only about books and does the bare minimum to financially get by. However, with his eccentric personality of “wild fervor” and “vivid freshness” (3), Dupin befriends the narrator, ostensibly as a sounding board on which to organize and boastfully articulate his latest discoveries. The narrator, more subdued in personality by contrast, is grateful for the company and enraptured by the perpetual mental stimulation. The narrator arranges for Dupin to become his housemate, and the two live in “a time-eaten and grotesque mansion” in Faubourg St. Germain that fits the “fantastic gloom of [their] common temper” (3). The fusion between them is mutually beneficial, and they become inseparable. The narrator describes them “as madmen of a harmless nature” due to their preferred isolation and eccentricities: “Our seclusion was perfect” (4). They eventually move as one, following each lead in the titular murder case in lockstep with the other.

C. Auguste Dupin, detective extraordinaire, knows that to find truth, one must first draw empirical data out of sensory detail and then square that data with reason. Keen investigators, he believes, not only know where to look, but can determine exactly which observable phenomena flow logically from the previous. Dupin’s first act of genius demonstrates this reasoning. He reads his friend’s mind—or as the narrator phrases it, “retrace[s] the course” of his “meditations” (6). To the narrator’s astonishment, Dupin, without prompting, agrees that the stage actor Chantilly, a “diminutive figure” (5), would be better suited for the variety theater. Dupin explains step-by-step the narrator’s interactions and then follows with his analysis of each one. In so doing, the narrator discovers that his random outer experiences produce a predictable and rational thought pattern, one which is detectable to Dupin. The narrator notes Dupin’s duality, or “Bi-Part Soul,” which he describes as “the creative and the resolvent” (4). He muses that Dupin’s abilities result from an “excited, or perhaps […] diseased intelligence” (5).

Dupin and his partner read and discuss a series of local news articles related to “extraordinary murders.” The articles thoroughly detail the grisly murders of Mademoiselle Camille L’Espanaye and her mother, Madame L’Espanaye. A good portion of the narrative is devoted to three main details of the case: the state of the two victims at the time of death, the lack of cohesion in the witness testimony, and the unusual crime scene. The gruesome details, alarming to the average audience, are enumerated antiseptically throughout the narrative by abbreviated phrases devoid of emotional commentary.

The first article extensively describes the crime scene, including the condition of the victims’ apartment as well as entry points. Investigators discovered Mademoiselle L’Espanaye’s body strangled and crammed feet-first into the chimney. Madame L’Espanaye’s body was found bludgeoned, mutilated, and decapitated. The physician who assessed the bodies determined that the perpetrator or perpetrators had to possess great strength to inflict such severe damage. The physician also deduced that a razor was likely used on Madame L’Espanaye.

Subsequent articles convey that none of the witnesses can provide agreement on the language uttered by the victim or perpetrator during the crime. One witness, a French officer, claimed to hear a Frenchman having a dispute with a “foreigner” speaking Spanish. A neighbor believed to have heard someone other than the victims speaking Italian. A restaurateur, native to Amsterdam, maintained hearing a Frenchman cry out. Another witness, an Englishman unfamiliar with the German language, heard an altercation between a Frenchman and a German. An undertaker native to Spain heard an exchange between a Frenchman and an Englishman, though he does not understand English. The final witness, an Italian, testified that he heard a Frenchman and a Russian.

Dupin reads that an acquaintance, Adolphe Le Bon (meaning “the good”), has been arrested for the murders and plans to interject based on the lack of evidence he ascertained via the news articles. Dupin offers a lengthy monologue on the shortcoming of the Parisian police, chiefly that they operate successfully when only “simple diligence and activity” (15) are required. He haughtily continues and references Francois Eugène Vidocq, a famous French criminologist. Dupin maintains that while Vidocq “was a good guesser and a persevering man,” he made mistakes in his investigations because Vidocq “impaired his vision by holding the object too close” (15). Satisfied, Dupin suggests that he and the narrator assess the crime scene with their “own eyes.”

Dupin persuades his friend G–, the Prefect of the Paris Police, to allow him and the narrator entrance to the crime scene. Once their examination of the L’Espanayes’ apartment has concluded, Dupin drifts into a long period of silent contemplation. Before he finally shares whom he suspects is responsible for the crimes, as well as the rationale behind his deduction, he sets the stage for the unfolding drama. Assured in his deductions, Dupin again criticizes the shortsightedness of the police:

‘They have fallen into the gross but common error of confounding the unusual with the abstruse. But it is by these deviations from the plane of the ordinary, that reason feels its way, if at all, in its search for the true. In investigations such as we are now pursuing, it should not be so much asked “what has occurred,” as “what has occurred that has never occurred before” (17).

Dupin is so confident that he has solved the “insoluble mystery” that he prepares the narrator for the perpetrator’s impending arrival at their home. With their pistols at the ready, Dupin reveals the events of the crime as he understands them. First, Dupin eliminates the possibility of murder-suicide and determines that a third-party is responsible. Second, he scrutinizes the conflicting witness testimony and concludes that “[n]o words—no sounds resembling words—were by any witness mentioned as distinguishable” (19). Third, Dupin walks the narrator through the physical crime scene to determine the perpetrator’s exit. He remarks that the police have exhaustively search the scene, unable to determine the point of exit: “No secret issues could have escaped their vigilance. But, not trusting to their eyes, I examined with my own eyes” (20). The L’Espanayes’ two apartment windows are of particular interest to Dupin. Both are latched by a nail from the inside suggesting the murderer could not have escaped from either. However, since none of the 10 witnesses claim to have seen anyone exiting the doors of the apartment on the night of the murder, the only other way to exit, he rationalizes, must be one of these windows.

Dupin guides the narrator through his deductions, all the while arrogantly assuring the narrator that no matter how puzzling the mystery may appear, “there was no flaw in any link of the chain” (22). During his preliminary assessment, Dupin thoroughly analyzed the window latch mechanisms. One of them showed no malfunction whatsoever, but the other’s cracked nail gave only the appearance of closure. By testing, he proved the second window could have easily been opened from the inside and afterward spontaneously re-closed itself. Fourth, with the perpetrator’s plausible escape in mind, Dupin scanned the exterior wall of the apartment to determine “the mode of descent” (23). He offers a lengthy assessment of the exterior of the apartment to conclude that the perpetrator—with an “almost præternatural character of […] agility” (24)—could have swung from the building’s lightening rod to enter through the L’Espanayes’ window. Although not yet revealed, Dupin found a ribbon, similar to ones used by sailors, frayed and hanging off a lightning rod attached vertically along the building’s face.

From this point, Dupin begins to tie the threads of evidence together, to which the narrator is yet to grasp: “I seemed to be upon the verge of comprehension without power to comprehend” (24). Dupin, continuing his discourse without missing a beat, dismisses the motive of robbery and introduces the profundity of coincidences. Still encouraging the narrator to follow along with his thought process, Dupin circles back to the ferocity of the murders, “a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity” (27). With that, Dupin implores the narrator to offer the logical conclusion. The narrator, unsure of himself, suggests that an asylum escapee is the culprit. Dupin politely dismisses the narrator and provides further evidence: When Dupin scrutinized Madame L’Espanaye’s body, he recovered a tuft of animal fur in her clenched hand. This back and forth continues until Dupin provides the narrator with an article on orangutans.

From these clues, all of which were overlooked by the police, Dupin reasons that the murderer is not a person but an “Ourang-Outang” (Poe’s spelling for orangutan). Further, he proposes a human accessory to the crime, a French sailor. Assured of his logic, Dupin falsely advertised in the newspaper that he has captured the animal in hopes that its owner (and likely the single murder eyewitness) will come to claim it. Dumbfounded, the narrator questions how Dupin could have possibly known about the sailor, to which Dupin reveals the found ribbon.

With no surprise to Dupin, his ruse works. A stout sailor with an uneasy conscience arrives at his door. Dupin, with uncharacteristic warmth, reassures the sailor that he did nothing wrong. The sailor then offers up a confession with details corroborating Dupin’s theory. The Ourang-Outang had originally been captured by the sailor in Borneo. The sailor, unable to domesticate the animal, resorted to caging and whipping it as necessary. On the night of the murders, the Ourang-Outang broke out of its structure, played with his owner’s shaving razor, and struck out into the street after being frightened by the sailor’s return. Confused, afraid, and driven to outrun the sailor’s pursuit, the beast rushed in the Rue Morgue (meaning “Mortuary Street”) and scaled its way into the L’Espanayes’ apartment. The creature’s subsequent unpremeditated double homicide resulted from its instincts to the sight of blood, the screams of Madame L’Espanaye, and its guilty conscience. The narrative concludes with the Ourang-Outang being sold by the sailor to the local zoo, Le Bon’s release, and Dupin “satisfied with having defeated [the Prefect of the Police] in his own castle” (35).

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