Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Facsimile of the original manuscript for

Facsimile of the original manuscript for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.

Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was first published in Graham’s Magazine in 1841 and is largely touted as being the first detective story. Poe referred to it as one of his “tales of ratiocination”, and spends a good page or so explaining his ideas on the analytical minded individual in the introductory paragraphs of the actual tale; although there are literary precedents for characters using deductive reasoning to solve problems or mysteries, most notably in the titular characters of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Mademoiselle de Scudéri” (1819) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Murders_in_the_Rue_Morgue, retrieved 10/10/2013] and Voltaire’s “Zadig, or Destiny” (1748) [pg.239, The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Norton Critical Edition, 2004, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.] respectively, Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, who also makes appearances in “The Purloined Letter” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, is arguably the most influential and significant milestone in the development of the detective story genre , having even influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation of his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. In fact, Doyle is quoted to have said “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed… Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._Auguste_Dupin#Literary_influence_and_significance, retrieved 10/10/2013]

Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers is also quoted to have described “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as “almost a complete manual of detective theory and practice.” [http://www.matthewpearl.com/poe/murders.html, retrieved 10/10/2013]

Poe came up with the place name of the Rue Morgue, but most of the rest of his descriptions of Paris life and layout are fairly accurate and most likely were influenced by selections from “Unpublished Passages in the Life of Vidocq” by J.M.B. Francois-Eugene Vidocq,  which relate some of his biggest cases from his days as the head of the Parisian detective bureau under Napoleon and were also published in Graham’s Magazine. Specifically, the stories “Marie Laurente” and “Dr. Arsac” (both 1838) from said memoirs have been cited as possibly having had some influence on “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”.  [pg.239, The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Norton Critical Edition, 2004, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.]

Eugène François Vidocq

Eugène François Vidocq

The story involves the gruesome murder of two women, Madame L’Espanye and her daughter, Madamoiselle Camille L’Espanye, the latter whose body was found in a locked 4th story room of their residence, throttled and shoved up a chimney, while the former was found in the courtyard with her throat so deeply cut that her head fell off during the retrieval of her cadaver. The room, upon being breached, looked as though it had been ransacked, but there were money and valuables strewn everywhere so robbery does not seem to have been a motive. Neighbors reported hearing a gruff voice shouting amidst the women’s shrieks during the murders but no one could settle on what language the voice was speaking in. The most troubling fact seems to be that although the murders were committed in an enclosed room at the topmost floor of the house, the only likely route for egress was down the stairway that the concerned neighbors and gendarmes were ascending in order to help the unfortunate ladies.

A young man is eventually wrongfully arrested, although the evidence against him is scant, and Dupin and his unnamed friend (the narrator of the tale) who have been following the drama in the local paper as it unfolded, decide to put in their two cents with the prefect  of police, identified only by the initial “G–“, and solve the crime through Dupin’s mighty powers of deductive reasoning (i.e. ratiocination).

Dupin (seated) and his friend speak with G--, the Prefect of Police.

Dupin (seated) and his friend speak with G–, the Prefect of Police.

SPOILER ALERT: Although it has been praised for its many literary merits, as well as its influence, many people still criticize its twist ending, which is not even hinted at until the denouement where it is revealed that an escaped “Ourang-Outang” (that’s an orangutan to you and me) went berserk with his master’s straightedge razor then, fearful of his master’s whip, tried to cover up his misdeeds by hiding the evidence up the chimney and out of the window, where he made his escape by scaling the side of the building. The “gruff voice” everyone described as having heard during the melee was in fact the primate vociferating.

Harry Clarke's iconic illustration depicting the

Harry Clarke’s iconic illustration depicting the “Ourang-Outang’s murderous frenzy (1916-1923).

The story has been adapted for film many times, although most bear  little resemblance to the original Poe tale, and are just convoluted serial killer plots that somehow find a way to work in a passing mention of an ape being involved at some point.

Movie tie-in collection for

Movie tie-in collection for “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932).

However, one of the more creative adaptations, Universal’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) worked in a plot about a mad scientist who picked up female victims through his carnival act and took them to his waterfront lair so he could experiment on them in a misguided attempt to prove that man was indeed descended from the ape by mixing the blood of his prey with that of his captive ape. Dupin, a veritable anti-social recluse in the original story, is now “Pierre” Dupin, a struggling medical student who is reduced here to a love-sick swain whose sweetheart the moribund Madamoiselle Camille of the tale, here a very much alive and innocent inamorata with a pretty bonnet and big doe-eyes, is abducted by Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi, giving a great performance as a villainous mad Darwinist) who intends to include the young Madamoiselle in his next experiment. It is not until the last act of the movie that the plot begins to resemble its source material.

A still from Universal's

A promotional still from Universal’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932). Featured here are “Pierre” Dupin, Madamoiselle Camille L’Espanye, Dr. Mirakle and his henchman, Janos. The ape, Erik, holds Camille’s bonnet, which he snatched from her head when she got too close to his cage.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was also the subject of a song by the British Heavy Metal band, Iron Maiden, on their “Killers” (1981) album.

Label for Side One of the

Label for Side One of the “Killers” album (1981) by UK Heavy Metal band, Iron Maiden. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is track #3.

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