Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Case of the Missing Mystery - a boring Poe detective story, and a good one

I had known for a long time that Poe had written three stories starring C. Auguste Dupin. "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Rogët" (1842-3), and "The Purloined Letter" (1843): the first three detective stories in literary history, not counting a wide range of arguable predecessors.

Two of these stories are among Poe's most famous, and will be found in any Poe collection, as well as any number of short story and mystery anthologies. Not "Marie Rogët," though. Why not?

One reason is that it's a little long, fifty pages in the Library of America, compared to thirty-five pages of "Rue Morgue" and nineteen pages of "The Purloined Letter." Another is that it's boring, among the most boring things Poe ever wrote. It's a boring murder mystery!

Poe, smarter than everyone else, about everything (which more often than not was true), decided he was going to solve an actual unsolved murder, the death of Mary Rogers in New York City. "Marie Rogët" presents his solution to the actual crime, with everything transposed to Paris, allowing his newly minted Detective Dupin to take over. How does this work?:

"Three days elapsed, and nothing was heard of her. On the fourth the corpse was found floating in the Seine,* near the shore which is the opposite the Quartier of the Rue Saint Andreé, and at a point not very far distant from the secluded neighborhood of the Barrière du Roule.†

* The Hudson.
† Weehawken." (p. 509, LOA)

The footnotes were added after initial publication, in something called Snowden's Ladies' Companion, a true crime magazine, I guess. Maybe I should have filed this under the comedies. Weehawken! Dupin solves the case by reading all available newspaper articles and reconciling the discrepancies. That's why the story is dull - much of it is nothing but actual excerpts from actual newspapers.

The other Dupin stories are by no means my favorites, since Poe indulges their narrator in some of his most lugubrious prose. But they are genuinely important stories, cultural touchstones; everyone should know who the Rue Morgue murderer was, and where the purloined letter was hidden. And all three stories develop an idea that I think was original, that the detective can restore order through pure cognitive ability, some perfect mix of intuition, logic, and psychology. "Ratiocination," Poe called it. "Marie Rogët," the mystery solved by reading newspaper articles, is conceptually pure, maybe a little too pure.

Poe wrote one other detective story that is much less famous, rarely reprinted, and at least as good as the others - better than "Marie Rogët," certainly. It's called - note the irritating extra quotation marks - "'Thou Art the Man'" (1844), and is not a Dupin story. In a relatively efficient fifteen pages, we get a brief setup, a murder, clues and more clues, a revelation and confession, and an explanation. Almost classic, except that the revelation scene is completely insane, and Poe does have to resort to one cheap trick to make it work. "'Thou Art the Man'" strikes me as at least as effective a detective story as the Dupin tales, told in a more straightforward style.

We call "The Murder in the Rue Morgue" the first detective story retrospectively. A series of other detective stories followed, not right away, but eventually, that were clearly influenced by Poe, and clearly not influenced so much by some other candidates, so Poe stands at the beginning of the genre. I'd like to say something, though, for E. T. A. Hoffmann's Mademoiselle de Scudery (1819), a story that Poe certainly knew, which perhaps looks more like a detective story to us than it did even to Poe.

The "detective", the title character, is a writer of the 17th century, no longer read much but still well-known in Hoffmann's time. The villain is a serial killer. Mlle de Scudery does not catch the killer, but proves the innocence of the prime suspect. This story is the ancestor of the current boomlet of novels featuring Detective Jane Austen and Inspector Oscar Wilde and Special Agent Walt Whitman and so on, all of which are, I assume, hackwork. Not Hoffmann, though, and not Mademoiselle de Scudery.


  1. Very interesting post. Thanks. I've read The Purloined Letter but not Rue Morgue yet. I should get to it soon.

  2. You won't get any argument from me that "The Mystery of Marie Roget" is boring - I'm not sure what he was thinking on that one. Its length alone goes against his aesthetic theory.

    Oddly, I do have a morbid curiosity drawing me towards recent novels featuring "Detective Jane Austen and Inspector Oscar Wilde and Special Agent Walt Whitman." I'm sure there's a good reason why I'm hesitating though. I have read "The Dante Club" though!

  3. I've read Mademoiselle de Scudery, it's on my blog in fact. An interesting tale. I'm not sure it encouraged me to read more Hoffman, but it was definitely interesting.

  4. I remember that post - recommended to anyone curious about the Hoffmann story. Mademoiselle de Scudery is not exactly typical Hoffmann, though. Well, it is in some ways.

    Anyway, try "The Sandman" or "Master Flea" or whichever story of about the clockwork girl for something quite different. I should do a big Hoffmann reread and roundup some time.