Poe’s Short Stories – “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841)

Summary
An unnamed narrator begins this tale of murder and criminal
detection with a discussion of the analytic mind. He describes the
analyst as driven paradoxically by both intuition and the moral
inclination to disentangle what confuses his peers. He adds that
the analyst takes delight in mathematical study and in the game
of checkers, which allows the calculating individual to practice
the art of detection—not only of the moves integral to the game,
but also the demeanor of his opponent. The narrator argues, however,
that analysis is not merely ingenuity. He states that while the
ingenious man may, at times, be analytic, the calculating man is,
without fail, always imaginative.
The narrator then describes the circumstances in which
he met a man named C. Auguste Dupin. Both men were searching for
the same book at an obscure library in the Rue Montmartre, in Paris, and
began to converse. Soon, they became friends and decided to share
the expenses of a residence together. The narrator then relays an
anecdote illustrating Dupin’s brilliant powers of analysis: one night,
while walking together, Dupin describes an actor whom the narrator
is pondering. Amazed, the narrator asks Dupin to explain his method,
and we witness Dupin’s capacity to work backward and observe the
importance of seemingly insignificant details in order to reach
ingenious conclusions.
Soon thereafter, the narrator and Dupin read newspaper
headlines about a horrible murder in the Rue Morgue. One night at three a.m., eight
or ten neighbors of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter, Mademoiselle
Camille, wake to shrieks from their fourth-floor apartment. The
neighbors hear two voices, then silence. The neighbors and two policemen
finally break into the locked apartment to find utter disorder and
multiple pieces of evidence of a crime, including a blood-smeared
razor, locks of gray human hair, bags of money, and an opened safe.
They find no traces of the older woman. However, the noticeable
traces of soot in the room lead them to the chimney, where they
find the corpse of Mademoiselle Camille. They reason that the murderer
must have choked Camille to death and then thrust her body up into
the chimney. Expanding the search, the neighbors and police discover
the body of Madame L’Espanaye in a courtyard in the rear of the
building. They find her badly beaten, with her throat severely cut.
When the police move the body, in fact, her head falls off. The 4,000 francs
that Madame L’Espanaye had just withdrawn from the bank are still
in the apartment, ruling out robbery as a motive for the grisly
crime.
The newspaper then recounts the depositions of witnesses
concerning the voices they heard. They all agree that they heard
two voices: one, a deep Frenchman’s voice; and the other, a higher
voice of uncertain ethnic origin, though speculated to be Spanish.
The gender of the second speaker is uncertain. The same newspaper reports
the findings of the medical examiner, who confirms that Camille
died from choking and that Madame L’Espanaye was beaten to death
with immense violence, most likely by a club. The evening edition
of the paper reports a new development. The police have arrested
Adolphe Le Bon, a bank clerk who once did Dupin a favor.
With the arrest of Le Bon, Dupin becomes interested in
pursuing the investigation and obtains permission to search the
crime scene. Dupin is eager to survey the setting because the newspaper
reports portray the apartment as impossible to escape from the inside, which
makes the case so mysterious. Dupin suggests that the police have
been so distracted by the atrocity of the murder and the apparent
lack of motive that, while they have been attentive to what has occurred,
they have failed to consider that the present crime could be something
that has never occurred before. Producing two pistols, Dupin reveals
that he awaits the arrival of a person who will prove his solution
to the crime.
Dupin also names those elements of the crime scene that
he believes the police have mishandled. For example, the shrill
voice remains unidentifiable in its gender and its nationality,
but it also cannot be identified as emitting words at all, just
sounds. He also explains that the police have overlooked the windows
in the apartment, which operate by springs and can be opened from
the inside. Though the police believe the windows to be nailed shut,
Dupin discovers a broken nail in one window, which only seemed to
be intact. Dupin surmises that someone could have opened the window, exited
the apartment, and closed the window from the outside without raising
suspicion.
Dupin also addresses the mode of entry through the windows. The
police imagine that no suspect could climb up the walls to the point
of entry. Dupin hypothesizes that a person or thing of great agility
could leap from the lightning rod outside the window to the shutters
of the window. Dupin surmises that no ordinary human could inflict
the beating that Madame L’Espanaye suffered. The murderer would
have to possess superhuman strength and inhuman ferocity. To satisfy
the confusion of the narrator, Dupin points out that the hair removed
from Madame L’Espanaye’s fingers was not human hair. After drawing
a picture of the size and shape of the hand that killed the two
women, Dupin reveals his solution. The hand matches the paw of an
Ourang-Outang.
Dupin has advertised the safe capture of the animal, news
that he believes will draw out its owner. Dupin adds that the owner
must be a sailor, since, at the base of the lightning rod, he found
a ribbon knotted in a way unique to naval training.
When the sailor arrives, Dupin draws his pistol and demands
all the information he knows about the murders. He assures the sailor that
he believes him to be innocent. The sailor describes how the animal,
grasping a razor, escaped from its closet one night and disappeared
from his apartment. The sailor followed the Ourang-Outang and watched
him climb the lightning rod and leap into the window. Because he
does not possess the animal’s agility, the sailor could only watch
the animal as it slashed Madame L’Espanaye and choked Camille. Before
escaping the apartment, the animal threw Madame L’Espanaye’s body
to the courtyard below. The sailor thus confirms the identity of
the mysterious voices—the deep voice was his own, and the shrill
shrieks were that of the Ourang-Outang.
When informed of Dupin’s solution, the police release
Le Bon. The prefect is unable to conceal his chagrin at being outwitted
by Dupin. He is happy to have the crime solved, but he is sarcastic, rather
than grateful, about Dupin’s assistance. Dupin comments, in conclusion,
that the prefect is a man of ingenuity, not analysis.
Analysis
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” introduces a new genre
of short fiction to American literature: the detective story. The
detective story emerged from Poe’s long-standing interest in mind
games, puzzles, and secret codes called cryptographs, which Poe
regularly published and decoded in the pages of the Southern
Literary Messenger. He would dare his readers to submit
a code he could not decipher. More commonly, though, Poe created
fake personalities who would send in puzzles that he solved. “The
Murders in the Rue Morgue,” along with the later story “The Purloined
Letter,” allows Poe to sustain a longer narrative in which he presents
seemingly unsolvable conundrums that his hero, M. Auguste Dupin,
can always ultimately master. Dupin becomes a stand-in for Poe,
who constructs and solves an elaborate cryptograph in the form of
a bizarre murder case.
Poe’s life is also relevant to “The Murders in the Rue
Morgue.” The tale’s murders involve two women, and Poe spent his
adult life with his wife, Virginia, and his aunt, Maria “Muddy”
Clemm. The deaths of women resonate with Poe’s early childhood experience
of watching his mother die and Francis Allan suffer. The chaotic
and deathly Rue Morgue apartment symbolizes the personal tragedies involving
women that afflicted Poe’s life. Poe contrasts the violent disorder
of Madame L’Espanaye’s household with the calm domesticity that
Dupin and the narrator experience. Poe never found, in his lifetime,
this sort of household solace, and he invests this scene of domestic
ruin with the poignant experiences of his own life. The creation
of Dupin allows Poe not only to highlight his own remarkable cunning,
but also to share in the domestic tranquility and fraternity that
he long sought.
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” also relies on the role
of the narrator as Dupin’s friend. Poe chooses not to use Dupin
as a narrator in order to provide a sense of detachment from the
workings of the mind that the story describes. The narrator’s role
as a foil enhances Dupin as the detective hero. The narrator admires
Dupin and prompts him to elicit his analysis, which always astounds
the narrator. He allows himself to be outwitted by Dupin, thereby
demonstrating that Dupin thinks one step ahead of both the police
and the average reader. Accompanying Dupin to the crime scene, the narrator
ostensibly witnesses the same evidence, but needs the explanations
of his friend in order to see the true nature of the evidence and
to understand its part in the larger puzzle.
Part of Dupin’s brilliance is his ability to separate
himself from the emotional atrocity of the crime scene. The police
become distracted by the sheer inhuman cruelty of the scene, but
Dupin is able to look beyond the violence and coolly investigate
the small details that otherwise go unnoticed. The decapitation
of Madame L’Espanaye is just one ghastly example that, according
to Dupin, draws the police away from solving the crime. For all
of Dupin’s rationality and cunning, though, the actual explanation
of the crime is, by all accounts, ridiculous—the Ourang-Outang did
it. It is difficult to discern whether he intended this solution
to be humourous. If the story is to be construed in some way as
a joke—the detective story was too young at this time to be parodied—it
is a joke told with the straightest of faces. Poe’s tendency to
exaggerate gets the better of him in his effort to illustrate the
analytic contrasts between Dupin and the Paris police. One can argue
that Dupin’s brilliance is ultimately overshadowed by the need to
import a wild animal into the solution to the crime. Dupin gets
the case right, but Poe may, in fact, go too far in exaggerating
the power of his protagonist’s reasoning.