The First Detective Story Ever!:
Edgar Allan Poe's
"The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

by Drew R. Thomas

The analyst "makes, in silence, a host of observations and inferences" ...
"The necessary knowledge is that of what to observe"...
"deductions" ... "Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin" --

--The familiar words and phrases above were used first by Poe in this story.

Note: The quotes in this article are from "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." See Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. The English language has changed since this story was written, so if some grammar and punctuation looks strange to you, be aware that it was following the standard of the day.

When he wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allan Poe created the world's first detective story proper, with all the elements neatly in place.

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" begins with a short essay describing mental analysis and the person who employs it. Poe writes, "He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talent into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension præternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition."

Poe states, "I am not now writing a treatise, but simply prefacing a somewhat peculiar narrative by observations very much at random." The essay segues into the narrative of a strange and morbid case.

We meet the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story. He describes his first meeting with the eccentric "Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin" by "...the accident of our both being in search of the same very rare and very remarkable volume, brought us in closer communion... " at "...an obscure library in the Rue Montmarte".

As their friendship develops, the narrator tells us:

"He boasted to me, with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms, and was wont to follow up such assertions by direct and very startling proofs of his intimate knowledge of my own. His manner at these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; while his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulantly but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation. Observing him in these moods, I often dwelt meditatively upon the old philosophy of the Bi-Part Soul, and amused myself with the fancy of a double Dupin - the creative and the resolvent."

From newspaper accounts, we learn of the grisly murders of two women (a mother and her daughter), and can read the accounts of witnesses:

"The Tragedy in the Rue Morgue. Many individuals have been examined in relation to this most extraordinary and frightful affair. [The word 'affaire' has not yet, in France, that levity of import which it conveys with us,] "but nothing whatever has transpired to throw light upon it. We give below all the material testimony elicited.

The paragraph above is followed by a series of depositions from various witnesses.

We are present with Dupin's narrator friend throughout Dupin's investigation. But then the narrator tells us, "It was his [Dupin's] humor, now to decline all conversation on the subject of the murder, until about noon the next day. He then asked me, suddenly, if I had observed any thing peculiar at the scene of the atrocity."

All the clues are presented to the reader, as is Dupin's discussion of the case with his narrator. Dupin even challenges his narrator to attempt to reason from the clues.

Dupin places an ad in the newspaper:

CAUGHT - In the Bois de Boulogne, early in the morning of the - inst., (the morning of the murder,) a very large, tawny Ourang-Outang of the Bornese species. The owner, (who is ascertained to be a sailor, belonging to a Maltese vessel,) may have the animal again, upon identifying it satisfactorily, and paying a few charges arising from its capture and keeping. Call at No. ---- , Rue ----, Faubourg St. Germain - au troisiême."

Dupin's narrator-friend writes:

"How was it possible," I asked, "that you should know the man to be a sailor, and belonging to a Maltese vessel?"

"I do not know it," said Dupin. "I am not sure of it. Here, however, is a small piece of ribbon, which from its form, and from its greasy appearance, has evidently been used in tying the hair in one of those long queues of which sailors are so fond. Moreover, this knot is one which few besides sailors can tie, and is peculiar to the Maltese. I picked the ribbon up at the foot of the lightning-rod. It could not have belonged to either of the deceased. Now if, after all, I am wrong in my induction from this ribbon, that the Frenchman was a sailor belonging to a Maltese vessel, still I can have done no harm in saying what I did in the advertisement. If I am in error, he will merely suppose that I have been misled by some circumstance into which he will not take the trouble to inquire. But if I am right, a great point is gained. Cognizant although innocent of the murder, the Frenchman will naturally hesitate about replying to the advertisement - about demanding the Ourang-Outang. He will reason thus: - 'I am innocent; I am poor; my Ourang-Outang is of great value - to one in my circumstances a fortune of itself - why should I lose it through idle apprehensions of danger? Here it is, within my grasp. It was found in the Bois de Boulogne - at a vast distance from the scene of that butchery. How can it ever be suspected that a brute beast should have done the deed? The police are at fault - they have failed to procure the slightest clew. Should they even trace the animal, it would be impossible to prove me cognizant of the murder, or to implicate me in guilt on account of that cognizance. Above all, I am known. The advertiser designates me as the possessor of the beast. I am not sure to what limit his knowledge may extend. Should I avoid claiming a property of so great value, which it is known that I possess, I will render the animal at least, liable to suspicion. It is not my policy to attract attention either to myself or to the beast. I will answer the advertisement, get the Ourang-Outang, and keep it close until this matter has blown over.' "

Dupin gives two pistols to his narrator and warns that the man he expects may be dangerous "Be ready," said Dupin, "with your pistols, but neither use them nor show them until at a signal from myself."

The sailor shows up, Dupin confronts him with his involvement, and the case is solved. The narrative reads as follows:

"Come in," said Dupin, in a cheerful and hearty tone.

A man entered. He was a sailor, evidently, - a tall, stout, and muscular-looking person, with a certain dare-devil expression of countenance, not altogether unprepossessing. His face, greatly sunburnt, was more than half hidden by whisker and mustachio. He had with him a huge oaken cudgel, but appeared to be otherwise unarmed. He bowed awkwardly, and bade us "good evening," in French accents, which, although somewhat Neufchatelish, were still sufficiently indicative of a Parisian origin.

"Sit down, my friend," said Dupin. "I suppose you have called about the Ourang-Outang. Upon my word, I almost envy you the possession of him; a remarkably fine, and no doubt a very valuable animal. How old do you suppose him to be?"

And so begins the interview between the detective and his suspect.

When comparing Poe with those who came after him (for example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his stories about Sherlock Holmes) one can easily see Poe's profound influence. That, however, remains the subject for another article.

Meanwhile, there are a number of firsts in this story:

  • It's the first detective story
  • It is a locked-room mystery
  • All clues are shown to the reader well before the denouement, allowing you to reason and solve the mystery before the detective explains his conclusions.
  • In Murder for Pleasure, Howard Haycraft categorizes "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" as a "physical" story because after you've read it, the one scene which stays in your mind forever is a physical scene. Haycraft challenges us to think of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." If you read it as a child, and haven't picked it up for thirty years, the chances are enormous that the one thing comes to mind it is a physical image. Haycraft is right, of course; but this was only the beginning. Virtually all of the important elements that later writers of detective stories were to use were initially developed by Poe.

You can read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" for free in the Reading Room.

Genesis: 1841 |Home

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