Thursday, April 13, 2023

On This Day in the Old West: April 14

 On April 14, 1841, the very first detective story was published. As we’re writers, I thought this would be interesting to learn about—and your characters might even have read the story, which was called “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and was written by none other than the famous Edgar Allen Poe.

The story was published in Graham’s Magazine and Poe described it as one of his “tales of ratiocination.” The detective, C. Auguste Dupin, is from Paris. As the very first fictional detective, Dupin displays traits which later became literary conventions for detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Many later characters, for example, follow Poe’s model of the brilliant detective, including the sidekick narrator and the “big reveal” where the detective first spotlights the villain, then explains his rationale for the choice.


The story opens with an explanation of the analytical art of deduction by the unnamed narrator. He then explains how he met Dupin and shared a house with him, during which time Dupin showed his deductive reasoning by deducing the narrator’s thoughts based on clues from the man’s previous words and actions. They then read about a baffling murder case in the newspaper. A woman and her daughter were found murdered at their home on the Rue Morgue. The murders took place in a fourth-floor room locked from the inside, and within the room were found a bloody straight razor, tufts of bloody gray hair, and two bags of gold coins.


Several witnesses say they’d heard voices in the room at the time of the murder. One, male, spoke French, but the second voice spoke an unknown language. The bank clerk who’d delivered the coins to the women is arrested, despite no further evidence linking him to the crime. Dupin, remembering a service the clerk had once performed, determines to prove him innocent.

Dupin decides that the unknown voice (the one not speaking French) is not a human voice at all. He and the narrator examine the scene for clues and Dupin points out that robbery was obviously not a motive because of the coins left behind. He also says the murderer had to have superhuman strength because of the condition of the bodies (one was stuffed up a chimney). He also had to enter and exit the house via the open fourth-floor windows, which involved an agile climb up a lightning rod. Based on the tuft of hair he finds, Dupin concludes that an orangutan is the guilty party and advertises in the newspaper for someone who has lost one.


A sailor shows up, looking for the primate, and even offers a reward for its capture, but Dupin is interested only in solving the crime. The sailor tells him that the orangutan had been trying to imitate his shaving routine with his straight razor, then escaped and fled down the Rue Morgue, where it clambered into the women’s apartment and tried to shave one of them. She, naturally, resisted, so the orangutan murdered her, then turned on her daughter before the sailor managed to climb up to the rooms himself. The voices witnesses heard were those of the sailor and the orangutan.

With the true villain unmasked, the bank clerk is freed from jail and Dupin emerges victorious, his brains having outwitted the brawn of the orangutan and, to a lesser extent, its cruel owner. This paved the way for the intelligent detective, relying on clues and motive rather than brute force. 


Poe explains the method used by his detective, ratiocination, as follows: "the extent of information obtained; lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation.” This method also relies on the written word. Dupin’s curiosity is aroused by reading a newspaper account of the murder, and he recalls information about orangutans he has previously read in “an article by Cuvier” (probably Georges Cuvier, the French zoologist). This also includes the reader, who follows along by virtue of the written story’s clues. Poe also emphasized the spoken word, having Dupin interview the sailor as to the facts of the crime.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” created many of the tropes used in modern mysteries: the brilliant (but eccentric) detective, the bumbling police officers, the narration by a close friend, and the device of presenting the solution first, followed by the clues leading to that solution. This is also the first “locked room” mystery story. The Pennsylvania Inquirer printed that "it proves Mr Poe to be a man of genius... with an inventive power and skill, of which we know no parallel."  Poe, however, downplayed his achievement in a letter to Phillip Pendleton Cooke: 

These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key. I do not mean to say that they are not ingenious – but people think them more ingenious than they are – on account of their method and air of method. In the "Murders in the Rue Morgue", for instance, where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself... have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?"


Your characters could well be familiar with the writing of Edgar Allen Poe, if not with this particular story. They could also read “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in the newspaper in 1841, wherein you can record their reactions to the tale. At any rate, the invention of the modern detective story makes for interesting reading.


J.E.S. Hays


  1. Interesting. I've always liked Poe's writings and I had no idea this was the first published mystery story. Thanks for posting.

  2. I did not realize this had been published before the Civil War. Thanks for pointing that out!