I have mentioned works of literature in my stories to set the time period – what were people reading like my characters? So in honor of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday in January and because his writings were mentioned in another book I was reading, I read some of Poe’s works, which I haven’t read since high school.
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe published in 1841
I read this because Poe is credited as the first modern detective story write because of this story. He does establish a format. I found the killer in this story a bit unbelievable. An ape would have bitten the victims and torn their flesh and would not have tried to hide the body. That aside, let’s focus on the elements of the mystery story.
The narrator is the sidekick. He tells the story but is not the detective. Think Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.
The story in this book was 23 pages long and Poe spends the first full two pages describing the analytical mind and the power of observation and inference and noticing details others overlook. I would not recommend starting any mystery novel this way.
On page 3 the narrator introduces us to Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, a poor gentleman who enjoys books. The two meet at a library interested in the same rare book, and the narrator invites Dupin to live with him in Paris. They enjoy strolling around at night. Dupin proves his powers of observation by telling the narrator what he is thinking about and then explaining how he came to that conclusion.
It is page 6 when the murder is introduced. The crime is described in the paper with a great deal of detail. The clues are revealed to the reader in random order and description. The furniture is broken and thrown about, a bloody razor in on a chair, long, thick tresses of gray hair are on the hearth, jewelry, silver spoons and gold are on the floor but not taken, a safe is open with the keys in the door, a corpse found in the chimney with scratches on the face and bruises on the neck and another mutilated corpse of an old lady in the back alley with her throat cut so deeply her head fell off.
Today’s newspapers would not have the details while the murder was under investigation, but writers find ways to place the amateur sleuth at the crime scene.
More information is revealed in a second newspaper article and cover interviews by the police. A French man is heard and another voice screaming. Another fact is revealed about 4000 francs being delivered to the home. Also the doors and windows were all locked after the crime. The bodies are described as being bruised and broken.
Interviewing suspects fills most of a mystery novel. A big part of making a mystery work is the detective. Is it a hard-nosed detective who is reluctant to take the case? Or is it a nosy neighbor who was friends with the victim? The detective has to win the reader’s interest and confidence.
The narrator and Dupin obtain permission to visit the crime scene. The police have no motive for the violent murder where no valuables were taken. Also how did the murderers, since two voices heard, escape?
Dupin rules out murder suicide by the old woman because of her lack of strength to shove the young woman up the chimney.
Mystery writers eliminate the obvious or explanations that don’t fit the crime. This allows the writer to focus on the details of the actual crime.
Dupin focuses on the voices and the fact no one could name the language of the shrieking voice. Dupin eliminates the door and windows in the front of the apartment as the way of escape and focuses on the back where he discovers a window with a broken nail or latch that closes automatically. Dupin spends several pages describing the mechanism of the window and the shutters outside to explain the escape.
Mystery writers need to explain how the killer committed the crime. Dupin focuses on the strength of the killer and the violence inflicted on the victims. He notes the size of the hand needed to inflict the bruises, much larger than an ordinary man. He uses science to explain the clues and when the narrator thinks the killer is an escaped madman, Dupin in a detective’s patience with the ordinary man, explains the killer wasn’t human. A piece of ribbon identifies the Frenchman in the room as a sailor.
Dupin shows the narrator and advertisement in the newspaper written by Dupin describing the capture of an Ourang-Outang which can be claimed by its owner to lure the Frenchman sailor to their apartment and tell them his role in the crime.
The sailor obtained the Ourang-Outang from a fellow sailor who died. He locked the ape in a room but upon returning to the room, the animal had a razor in his hand trying to shave his lathered face (this image is rather comical). The sailor used a whip to calm the animal (this seems counterproductive) and the ape flees. The sailor follows the ape to the apartment of the victims who are putting papers in the open safe. The ape pulls the old woman’s hair and cuts her throat. The sight of blood drove the ape into a frenzy and he chokes the young girl, who is laying still on the floor.
Upon seeing the sailor, the ape is remorseful and hides the evidence shoving the girl up the chimney and throwing the old woman out the window.
Dupin and the sailor confront the police with the truth, embarrassing the police Prefect because he could not solve the crime. The amateur sleuth is wiser than the professional.
The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe
The Purloined Letter is a sequel to the Murder in The Murders in the Rue Morgue and has C. Auguste Dupin and the narrator smoking in the dark in their shared apartment when the Prefect of the Parisian Police arrives with a problem. A letter delivered to a woman of importance was stolen by a minister who is blackmailing her. The Prefect searched the minister’s home for the letter and had police search the minster but they have been unable to find it.
After a month the Prefect returns and writes a check to Dupin for the letter which he recovered. Dupin then tells the narrator how the Prefect did not put himself in the position of the minister to figure out where he was hiding the letter. The minister had altered the letter’s appearance with tears, dirt and different initials on it but it was placed in a bag on the mantle in plain sight. Dupin hired a man to fire a shot in the street to distract the minister and Dupin took the letter, replacing it with a similar looking letter. The lady is no longer in fear of the minister revealing her secret and leaves a clue for the minister to realize he was the one who took the letter.
What does Poe teach us about mystery writing? The police have routines and do not deviate from them so they overlook clues or do not see the obvious such as any detective created by a writer. Also it is quite all right for a detective to take reward money or offer his services to the police. In addition, the detective likes the villain to know he’s been outwitted.
The Gold-bug 1843 is a treasure hunt story. A man finds a gold bug and wraps it in parchment that turns out to have invisible writing on it. When his friend holds the parchment near fire, a skull appears and he discovers a cipher that leads him to Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. Poe spends a lot of time explaining the invisible letters and how he solved the cipher.
The two poems I read were The Raven 1845 and Eldorado 1849 which are my favorite of his poems.