Reading Challenges

December 9, 2011

Edgar Allen Poe's C. Auguste Dupin

Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Published in 1841, Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue is often credited as the first piece of detective fiction. Although Poe never refers to his Parisian hero as a detective, the savy C. Auguste Dupin is just that. In fact, Dupin's investigative methods are strikingly familiar because they provided the model for a far more well known literary detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Side note: for more information on the origins of the word detective, a term which would have been known in Poe's time, but only within the context of the police, see the excellent article over at Mystery File. 

Auguste Dupin uses his reason, or as Poe call its ratocination, to solve two more mysteries that follow The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter. In addition to Dupin's analytical approach, other aspects of the stories that helped develop a framework for future mysteries, including those centered on iconic detectives like Holmes and Hercule Poirot, are:

- discovering the case by reading about it in the newspaper
- links to true crime (famous cases of the era that had an impact on the general public)
- friend and assistant who narrates the tale
- extraordinary attention to detailed analysis as opposed to creative guesswork
- solution of mystery announced, followed by recap/flashback of events with explanation 
- local police and law enforcement depicted as floundering idiots not worth a grain of salt

While I may prefer Sherlock Holmes to the C. Auguste Dupin mystery stories, the importance of Poe's writing in the genre is undeniable. I often felt, particularly while reading The Mysteries in the Rue Morgue (with its wonderful plot twist!), as if I had stepped into the den of a Parisian Sherlock Holmes, only to remind myself that Poe did it first, some forty years before Conan Doyle created his own quirky hero. 

These three mystery stories have been part of my project centered around detective fiction. I followed an audio course earlier this year, Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present (Modern Day Scholars Series) and am now doing all the suggested readings for the course in chronological order. Prior to Poe, I completed Bleak House, noteworthy (among other reasons) because it featured one of the first ever investigators in writing (Mr. Bucket). I also recently finished Lady Audley's Secret for the same project, as sensation fiction is a close cousin of the mystery genre. Poe's C. Auguste Dupin tales were then listed as the first mystery stories. The next item in the course to read is Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (first mystery novel). For the time being however, I'll be taking a break from this project, as I dedicate myself to reading holiday classics throughout the month of December. I hope to return to the history of detective fiction in January. 

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