The Hidden Murder in the Rue Morgue
Dupin, pronounced “Doo-puh”, like duper without an n or r on the end in a French or Southern accent, is Poe’s ingenious detective, a name Poe found in a book he reviewed the same month his first detective story was published. Dupin was a minor French statesman known as a walking library, a living encyclopedia who read and remembered everything, from the Bible, to Homer, to the Koran, to Rousseau. The name Dupin, which sounds like duping or dupin’ when mispronounced by Americans, and Dupin’s full name, C. Auguste Dupin, makes his initials C.A.D. and suggest Dupin is a cad, scoundrel or rogue who behaves deceptively, dishonorably, and unconventionally, like a Daoist sage, who lies low like water and fools most folks.
Poe could have easily known the English word dupe comes from the old French de huppe, of the hoopoe bird, with feathers that stand up on the top of the male’s head, a golden crown for intimidating others, such as predators and rivals for mates. If Poe is famous for his raven, why not also the hoopoe? The bird’s name contains Poe’s own, as if Dupin conceals Poe himself, and an even dumber pun, quite foolish, like a dupe, a pun that Poe would use if he thought Dupin’s name could dupe anyone is: Who is the hoo-poe? Dupin, the hoopoe trickster bird, is who? Poe himself, of course, who thought quite highly of his own analytical abilities, challenging anyone in one publication to send him a cryptographic puzzle he could not solve. Dupin is an unrivaled genius in all three tales.
Mark Twain wrote a half-century after Poe’s death that Murders in the Rue Morgue is the only detective story that authors shouldn’t be ashamed of. The original story began with a paragraph about phrenology that Poe took out in the final collected tales after doubts about the pseudo-science, which many used to argue for racial superiority of Europeans over African and American tribes. Poe’s nameless narrator, the foil Doyle followed when he invented Watson who watches Holmes’ great genius at work, tells us in the lost paragraph that the organ of analysis in the brain can be described but not defined as the capacity to resolve things into their elements, and if philosophers, possibly the idealists Kant and Hegel, are wrong that this organ is ideal, it is likely primitive. Poe’s narrator doesn’t mention African or American tribes, but he argues as if most phrenologists are completely wrong about race, logic and reason. If analysis is primitive, all of us have it.
Poe knew the English word analysis, like many fancy words with several syllables, comes from French, from Latin, from the Greek analusis, to loosen, untangle, or take apart, much as we divide fruit into groups by type. Kant and Hegel tell us synthesis gathers things together, much as Dupin gathers clues, testimony and motives in his imagination to see and feel more possibilities than anyone, and then analyzes what he has synthesized, breaks things down and weighs what is more or less likely, without eliminating the strangest of possibilities, unlike the cops, which is why he is the superior genius, and capable of paring down the motives and detecting the particular criminal out of the group of suspects, supreme in his analytical abilities, which is what his friend, the narrator, is trying to tell us in his long lecture at the beginning of the story after witnessing Dupin’s unsurpassed genius solve their first case together.
The narrator says many think calculation and discrimination, gathering conclusions and dividing possibilities, are at odds with the imagination, but they are wrong. Dupin later explains, after showing his genius, that imagination is both poetry and science, in other words, both Coleridge and Hegel, emotion and reason, and this is why he can read others and solve cases others can’t. The imagination is not at odds with reason, but rather verbal and emotional reasoning support each other in the imagination. Dupin deduces what the cops and others can’t because they don’t look, listen or feel as much as he does for criminals and the victims, which he uses to re-imagine the crime and determine the motive.
Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, modeled in part on Dupin, is fantastic at seeing clues and making analytic deductions, but unlike Dupin, Holmes infamously can’t read emotions in others, which is not ideal for determining motives. Doyle sacrifices emotion for pure reason with Holmes, much like Kant in his first Critique. Dupin shows off to the narrator how good he is at reading others, while Holmes can make little sense of them, but both detectives are dysfunctional and antisocial, incapable of interacting with most as most do, Holmes because he can’t read others, and Dupin because he can’t help it. Hegel, like Kant, argues reason is superior to emotion, and was no romantic like Rousseau or Poe.
The narrator says great minds are as solid as any method but they also use intuition. A great mind is more than a mere calculator. Math can make us think, but thought is more than calculation, and many misunderstand what chess truly teaches us. Games like chess, checkers, cards, and detective stories don’t just teach us to calculate the moves of pieces, but understand motives, not moves in straight lines, but arcs and curves found in fiction, the feelings that move the players that move the pieces, the greater game. Chess and cards don’t merely teach us to understand the game, but to understand people such as ourselves. We love tales with hidden twists because they show us ourselves beneath the words and characters, beneath the pieces of the game Poe is staging for us.
The narrator tells us chess is not the best game for brilliance, a game of checkers is better, and oddly states that a checkers game with four kings would be excellent, as only a brilliant move can win. We think that chess, a complicated game with complex rules, pieces, observation and detail beyond most people’s abilities is the better game for revealing ingenious critical thinking, but this is wrong, because concentration and complexity can be mistaken for profound genius, but a brilliant move in checkers that anyone could make can show us something profound, something simple that isn’t just useful or meaningful in the game, but in much of life.
Poe tells us through his narrator that profound, great minds don’t focus on the complexity of the object but the simplicity of the subject, not on the intelligence of objectivity but the stupidity of subjectivity. A great player throws themselves into their opponent’s position, feels for them, and often sees in a glance a clue that brings a flash of brilliant intuition. A complex, intricate plan is overthinking things. The brilliant player sees the moves they can use to tempt or scare their opponent into losing, which are often quite simple and stupid, like all of us.
Great chess players have attention, memory and knowledge of the game, but the skill of the brilliant analyst is beyond the limits of rules in a silent host of observations and inferences. It is not the validity of inference but the quality of observation, of knowing what to observe. The analyst does not confine their attention to the visible pieces on the board, but rather to their partners and opponents, how they arrange and observe their cards with their fingers and eyes, the ways their faces change as the game is good and bad, certain and uncertain, the ways they pick up cards from the table in victory or throw them down in defeat, subjects moved, moving objects. The greater analyst can play as if their opponents have their cards turned outwards towards them. This is what the narrator tells us before he mentions meeting Dupin.
The narrator starts his story after struggling with its meaning, telling us he was from a great family fallen on hard times and to gets by with books and little else. He meets Dupin in a library searching for the same rare book, Dupin kindles the spirit of the narrator, and the narrator rents a large abandoned mansion for them both to live in, fitting their gloomy mood. This makes Dupin the mind and the narrator the body, much like Holmes is the mind and Doctor Watson the body. The two withdraw from the world and live like madmen, existing within themselves alone. They don’t know Paris, and Paris doesn’t know them. They live in darkness inside during the day and go out at night, walking and talking together, as Poe did with his teenage friends. Dupin has weak eyes but a powerful imagination that is sensitive, so he avoids daylight and crowds and stays in the dark, which helps him think and imagine.
One night while they are out walking, Dupin amazes his friend by reading his mind, showing how he can watch someone’s eyes and see what they are seeing, listens to the sounds they make, and watch their expression to feel what they are feeling, and can follow their train of thought. Dupin tells his friend most people have a window over their hearts he can see right through, much as the narrator says that a great card player plays as if others have their cards turned outward. The Daodejing says most people parade their foolish judgements in front of others, but the wise few don’t and can read others easily.
Soon after this, the nocturnal duo read in an evening paper that at three that morning shrieks were heard from the house of Madame and Mademoiselle L’Espanaye, the Spanish as a fake French name. This makes the mother and daughter Spanish ladies, and unfortunately will have to say farewell to them very soon, as another sea chantey popular in Poe’s day goes that his brother may have sang, like drunken Captain Quint sings in Spielberg’s Jaws.
A crowd breaks in the front door and enters with two armed officers. They hear voices upstairs, one speaking French and another shrieking something none of the mixed crowd understand, so they run upstairs past three abandoned floors to a locked door which they force open, finding a fourth floor room holding a horrifying scene. All the furniture is smashed, a bloody mattress sits in the middle of the room, a bloody razor on a chair, clumps of hair by the fireplace, and two bags of 4,000 gold franks and loose silver coins, spoons and jewelry on the floor. A small open safe under the mattress with a key in the door is empty other than a few old letters and papers.
The corpse of the daughter is found stuffed, head downwards, up the chimney, with scratches on her face and bruises on her neck, as if she had been throttled to death. After searching the rest of the house they find the mother’s mutilated corpse in the backyard, with her throat cut so deeply that her head falls off when they take hold of her. A doctor later says the daughter’s tongue is partly bitten through, possibly by her, and the body of the mother was smashed as if a strong man with a large blunt object could have done it. The paper says there isn’t the slightest clue to solve the mystery yet.
The laundry lady says mother and daughter were happy and paid her well, and she never saw any strangers or servants in the house, nor furniture outside the upper room. This pairs women again with furniture, and both are destroyed. Like Dupin and the narrator, mother and daughter live by themselves, mind over body, adult over child. Their tobacconist said that they both lived in the upper room for years without tenants below, the mother was childish, the two were rarely seen, the daughter rarer still, and everyone thought they must have money stashed away.
Their banker says that three days before her death the mother withdrew 4000 francs in gold, sent to the house with a clerk. The clerk says he took the money with the mother to the house in the two bags, and that when they got there the mother took one of the bags from him, the daughter the other, and he bowed and left. He saw no one in the street at the time. The police continue to search and interview, but with no further results or clues. The clerk who carried the money to the house is arrested, but the paper says nothing incriminated him. If only four people know about the money, and two are dead, and one is a banker, the cops arrest the clerk.
Dupin seems interested in the case and nothing else, as he says nothing about it to his friend, deep in his own imagination, but after the clerk is arrested he asks the narrator for his opinion, who says the case is unsolvable. Dupin says that the Parisian police are smart but no more, making a vast parade of measures frequently ill-adapted to the objects at hand, and their successes are due to diligence, much like the narrator has told us chess moves require great attention, but may be two complicated to be ingenious or profound. Dupin says the famed police agent Vidocq, a model for Dupin, had good instincts and perseverance, but investigated objects too close, losing sight of the matter as a whole. Dupin says:
Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial. To look at things indirectly is the more refined comprehension. By undue complexity we perplex and enfeeble thought, and can make even Venus herself vanish from the heavens.
Why is truth superficial? Because motives like love, hate, sex and violence are stupid and obvious but move the players, the real pieces in the game. When we ignore the feelings that frame the game, we make Venus, goddess of love and passion, vanish from our thinking. The clerk Le Bon, whose name means the Good, did a favor once for Dupin, so Dupin returns the favor and solves the case to free the clerk from jail. Dupin feels for Le Bon, who felt for him, and we can too. It parallels the gold coins in bags and the loose, varied silver, with emotion, the lower, like a carpet, loose and varied, and the rational, the higher, like the law and finance, contained and uniform, which parallels the curved and straight lines of the furniture piece.
What Poe doesn’t say, but we can imagine if we feel for the clerk, is he saw the daughter, and perhaps she smiled at him, or perhaps she ignored him, but either way the chief locks up the clerk because the chief thinks the clerk wanted sex or money, like the mattress and empty safe left unexplained in the middle of the room, but the clerk couldn’t have escaped without being seen by the crowd, and the money is still there, so the chief and cops can’t solve the case, but can unjustly imprison someone to make the community feel better and feel secure their own positions. Dupin feels for the clerk, and feels that the cops are not fully feeling for him, but rather serving their own motives at the expense of the clerk’s.
Dupin knows the police chief, and gets permission to inquire into the case. They go to the house, Dupin examines everything, and on their way home he stops at a newspaper office. We learn later he has felt out the possibilities, imagined what is most likely, and is setting a trap to see if he is right. Unlike Holmes, who is certain of what he judges is elementary, Dupin says that genius always involves probability, which is whittled down by analysis but not closed out. Dupin says coincidences are stumbling blocks to the uneducated in probability, and the cops think the case is unsolvable simply because there are no suspects who could have escaped and no motives that make sense, but this actually eliminates most possibilities, leaving us to conclude it could only be something bizarre, a possibility that most wouldn’t consider.
Dupin says he will or has solved the case with as much ease as the cops have difficulties, and he is waiting for someone who is hopefully innocent, but has pistols to detain him just in case. Dupin says the women weren’t killed by spirits, but the assassin doesn’t seem human. He asks his friend to open his mind and imagine the second voice, shrieking no language the crowd understands. Dupin says he thought, a posteriori, borrowing a term from Kant, that the murderer couldn’t escape, but he found a window that locks when it shuts, and an incredible acrobat could have climbed up the lightning rod on the side of the house, climbed through the open window, and the widow locked after he left. The mother and daughter are frightened of the outside world, reclusive like Dupin and his friend, but they failed to consider the absurd possibility of an acrobatic assassin, and left their fourth floor window open.
Dupin says to keep these points steadily in mind, the shrill, undecipherable voice, the acrobatics, and the lack of a reasonable motive. The daughter was strangled by hand, not killed with the razor, and then thrust up a chimney, which isn’t where an assassin would hide a body. Dupin says this isn’t simply odd, but excessively odd, like the EXTRAORDINARY MURDERS the evening paper announced. Dupin says the strength to thrust the daughter’s body up a chimney that required several men to get her out, tear hair out by the roots and cut a head almost entirely off a body with a razor is quite extra-ordinary itself.
Dupin asks the narrator what he is thinking, and the narrator feels his flesh crawl, as if he can think of something, but not quite, and says it must be a madman, some raving maniac escaped from an asylum. Dupin says that madmen do talk in words, however incoherent, that he found hair that is not human in the mother’s clenched fingers, and can show the daughter was not strangled by human hands. Dupin has the narrator read a passage from Cuvier describing the orangutan of the islands of Southeast Asia, and the narrator suddenly sees that the murderer could not have been anyone except an orangutan, but who was the other French voice? Dupin, who has put himself in the place of a madman, and then in the place of an ape, also found a piece of ribbon outside that sailors use to tie back their hair. A sailor could capture an ape, bring it home, and lose it, so Dupin has already taken out an add in the paper asking if anyone has lost an orangutan, which is why they are waiting with pistols.
At that moment, they hear someone climb the front stairs, hesitate, turn and start to leave, turn back, step up to the door, and knock with determination. Anyone should be able to read the feelings in these sounds, and we haven’t even seen the sailor yet. Dupin says “Come in!” in a cheerful and hearty tone, luring him in. A tall, stocky sailor with a sunburned face hidden by a beard and a wooden club enters the room cautiously. He resembles an orangutan, orange, hairy and possibly violent, and he is armed with a club that could have crushed the mother’s body according to the doctor.
Dupin asks the sailor to sit, and says that he envies him, as he has caught a valuable beast. The sailor sighs, relieved, and Dupin says he can pick up his ape at a stable in the morning. The sailor says he will pay a reasonable reward, and Dupin says he would like the sailor to tell him everything he knows about the murders the other night as he quietly locks the door, puts the key in his pocket, pulls out a pistol and sets it on the table. The sailor’s sunburned face flushes, he rises to his feet with his club, then falls back trembling, the converse of turning to go but then knocking confidently. The narrator pities him from the bottom of his heart, sympathizing with this dual-natured sailor, both man and beast, violent and victim.
Dupin tells the sailor they mean him no harm, says he knows the sailor is innocent, and asks the sailor to confess, and the sailor says he will, but he doesn’t believe they will believe him. The sailor says he sailed to the island of Borneo and captured the orangutan with a friend who died, leaving him with a furious ape on the journey home. He kept the ape in Paris while it recovered from a splinter in its foot, hoping to sell it. Then, after a night of drinking, the sailor returned home to find the ape had broken out of his closet and was sitting in front of the mirror trying to shave with the sailor’s razor, which it had seen through the keyhole.
The sailor pulls out his whip, and the ape flees through an open window. The ape runs ahead, waits for the sailor to catch up, and then runs ahead again, clearly conflicted about loving and hating the sailor. Unlike Dupin and the narrator, the sailor and ape don’t walk arm in arm at night, with sailor’s mind and ape’s body out of tune. The ape sees something shiny in the mother and daughter’s window, which the narrator doesn’t mention is likely the loose silver, the emotions and motives, not the gold coins in bags, the words and logical reasoning, that catches the light, as the ladies are up at odd hours counting their money for their own private purposes. The sailor, who climbs the lightning rod after his ape, peeks in the window.
The ape tries to shave the mother to help her, but doesn’t know neither women nor apes shave. The mother screams and struggles, angers the ape, and with one sweep of its arm it severs her neck. The frenzied ape drops the razor on the chair, strangles the daughter, sees the sailor in the window, breaks the furniture, shoves the daughter up the chimney and the mother out the window to conceal its crimes in simple ways. The ape hurls the mother headlong through the window, which is barely possible as she barely has a head. The sailor slides down the lightning rod and goes home, abandoning the ape completely. The voices the crowd heard on the stairs were the sailor outside and the ape inside.
The narrator says he has scarcely anything to add, and that the ape was eventually caught and sold by the sailor to the botanical garden for a good sum. The clerk is released, the angry chief says people should mind their own business, bested, and Dupin says let him talk, as he beat the chief in his own castle. The chief is all flower with no stem, all head with no body, all brain with no heart, like Laverna, the Roman goddess of thieves and the underworld, or a codfish, according to Dupin.
Opening quotes are sometimes meaningless addendums and window-dressing, as they were in Poe’s day, but in the opening quote to the story we are told that the name of the song that the Sirens sang and the name that Achilles took when he hid among women are puzzling, but not beyond all conjecture. The Sirens sing an emotional song that leads to death, but it isn’t named with a word. Achilles is a strong warrior, but he hides under a false name among sentimental women. Words and names are hard to figure out in such emotional matters, but they are not completely impossible to figure out.
The narrator oddly says at the start that a checkers game with four kings could show us brilliant moves. In the story sailor catches ape, mother keeps daughter, chief locks up clerk, and detective captivates narrator, four pairs of pieces with one over the other. Adventure leads to disaster and injustice leads to justice as the first pair kills the second and the third is redeemed by the fourth. The sailor’s ape kills the mother and daughter, and the chief jailing the clerk leads the detective to solve the case. No one is punished as it seems there is no crime, but there is one unexplained end at the start of the sailor’s story: the second sailor.
The opening quote tells us Achilles hid unnamed among women, a sailor with a fatal flaw, like an ape with a splinter in its foot, and the name Achilles took is not beyond all conjecture. According to the final quote from Dupin, there is a master-stroke of brilliance in saying what isn’t and explaining what hasn’t been. The second sailor isn’t, and we should explain why he hasn’t been since. Dupin says the best solutions involve probability, and we can say with reasonable probability that the first sailor cut the throat of the second to keep the ape for himself.
The first sailor’s face is half-hidden by beard but he keeps a razor and says the ape watched him shave. Poe borrowed a bit from the Voyage of the Potomac, a ship that took half a year to sail from New York to Indonesia. If the sailor’s beard is longer than his voyage he lied and the ape didn’t watch him shave, but watched someone shave and someone cut a throat, which is how the ape learned to use the razor to shave and as a weapon. Poe also borrowed a bit from a folktale about a man who teaches an ape to shave and then tricks the ape into cutting its own throat. The first sailor cut the throat of the second while the second was shaving, giving the first the opportunity, weapon and motive.
Dupin tells us he has a window into others’ hearts, but doesn’t get a chance to watch tells to solve the case. He reads clues and feels for the ape, mother and daughter, but never meets any of them. He feels for the clerk in prison but doesn’t visit him. Dupin feels that he hurt the chief’s pride, but after the case is closed. The sailor is the only piece that shows us tells, and he is easy to read twice. He pauses on the stairs before ringing the doorbell and rises from the chair but remembers the gun, showing he is capable but also confused. Dupin tells the sailor he is innocent which calms him, but the sailor hesitates a third and final time, the moment he thinks of his partner. Just as four pairs make the moves of the plot, four words make the most brilliant move of the story. The sailor starts his story “after a brief pause,” and after that the narrator summarizes the sailor’s story, stripping it of all further tells from the sailor.
The first death in the story is like the first killing, with the throat cut and body left outside, and the final injustice is like the second killing, with youth strangled and stuck in a space. Why doesn’t Dupin solve this hidden crime? Poe hoped we would, by following his words, feeling out the sailor and imagining what happened. To help us even more, in his second detective story we discover a sailor has killed someone he loves. Poe has duped us all with Dupin since, taking the secret to his grave after he invented the whodunnit. Emotions may be the weakness of words, the Achilles’ heel hiding at the base of all arguments, but feelings are the strength of meaning itself, and we can hardly think without them.