The Crackpot Romantics

Auguste Dupin

Edgar Allen Poe’s early mystery stories are the inspiration for The Black Cat by J.M. Geever, a novel that Fiction Advocate is proud to publish. They are also an inspiration for the world’s most famous sleuth, Sherlock Holmes. In his new book, The Great Detective, Zach Dundas offers a popular history of Sherlock Holmes, which begins with this origin story about Edgar Allan Poe.

“With ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ ‘The Purloined Letter,’ and ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’” Paul Collins [an Associate Professor of English at Portland State University] told me, “Poe starts the tradition of the mystery that centers on a singular, charismatic detective, one who works outside the system and solves the mystery by observation and deduction rather than random chance.” Poe’s stories revolve around a Parisian oddball named Auguste Dupin. Significantly, his nameless and subservient roommate acts as narrator. When I later burrowed back into these numbers, all published in the 1840s, for the first time since high school, Dupin and his buddy struck me as obvious embryos of Holmes and Watson—though, this being Poe, they are significantly weirder. They live together in a giant, decaying mansion, keep the windows shuttered all day to produce artificial night, a.k.a. “the sable divinity,” and lounge about reading creepy books and going into crackpot-Romantic trances. Mrs. Hudson would have to clean the place out with a flamethrower.

The stories themselves—no disrespect to the freak-chic sage of Baltimore, who wrote them when readers harbored much different expectations about concision and plausibility—creak and groan a bit these days. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” starts with a rambling essay, pages and pages long, about the nature of observation, completely disconnected from the plot itself. That plot involves a pair of killings far grislier than anything Conan Doyle would ever describe—one victim is beheaded, another is mangled and stuffed feet-first up the chimney. (The spoiler-sensitive should skip to the next paragraph, though if you can really have a literary landmark first published during the Van Buren administration “spoiled” for you, get down to the library.) The killer is a monkey—or, I’m sorry, an “Ouran-Outang.”

“An aspect of the Poe stories that is fascinating now is that you see him trying out a couple of different ways of writing a detective story, because there was no such thing as a detective story,” Collins said. “In ‘The Murders n the Rue Morgue,’ you see a full investigation in action. ‘Marie Roget’ basically consists of Dupin talking about how stupid all the journalists who covered the case are, and it’s almost just a recitation of facts with very little in-scene action. It’s like he shows you what not to do. And interestingly, I am pretty sure that in all of Poe’s work, Dupin and his sidekick are the only characters that recur from one story to another. It’s like he intuited that aspect of the genre: first you write one, and then you write another one.”

The Great Detective

Excerpted from The Great Detective by Zach Dundas. Copyright © 2015 by Zach Dundas. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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