Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In Poe’s “Murders on the Rue Morgue,” his fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin, together with Dupin’s friend and narrator, read in the newspaper of two particularly gruesome murders.
The victims, Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter Camille, were murdered in the middle of the night in their home. The house had been trashed, and valuable objects were tossed around the room. However, a small safe, which had originally fit under the bed, was found open, with no remaining contents save a few useless papers. The body of the daughter was found stuffed in the chimney; she had been strangled. The body of Madame L’Espanaye was found in a small courtyard at the rear of the building, her throat slit with such violence that when she was lifted up, her head fell off; a number of bones were broken as well.
The following day’s paper added testimony provided by several neighbors, asserting that the mother and daughter seemed very respectable and extremely fond of one another. On the evening of the murders, the house suddenly began to resonate with shrieks, and neighbors called the police. A policeman, in the process of trying to break in, heard the shrieking stop abruptly—but this was followed by an argument between two people, a man with a gruff voice and a shrill-voiced foreigner. Neighbors gathered outside concurred, although they could not agree on whether the foreign speaker was Spanish, English, Russian, or Italian. Essentially, everyone thought it was a language they did not personally know. Everyone also agreed that the shrieks preceded the fight, and by the time they reached Camille’s room there was no sound at all, nor any living occupants either. The paper concluded there was not “the shadow of a clew apparent.”
Dupin, on the other hand, thinks there are plenty of clues, because he is a master at turning observation into deduction. In an early passage, he demonstrates his analytical gifts by appearing to read the narrator’s mind, when in fact he merely followed his friend’s train of thought by observing such normally ignored clues as the fleeting expressions on his friend’s face, his murmuring under his breath, the direction of his absent-minded gaze, tiny nuances of body language, and recollections of past conversations with him that had produced predictable associations. This is the art of deduction, which is based on nothing more than a series of assumptions.
Some assumptions, as Poe is quick to demonstrate, turn out to be either false or completely irrelevant. For example, detective stories tend to be packed with details: the color of a person’s eyes, the fact that he walks with a limp, the fact that he was born in Bohemia. While these details help us picture the scene or understand the characters, they may not be at all relevant to the solution of the crime. Dwelling on them may therefore lead to faulty reasoning. Such non-clues are called “red herrings,” from the use of a dead fish to distract a hound from the scent. Poe was a master of not only deductive reasoning, but also the ability to lead the reader astray.
In this story, a major red herring was the testimony of the neighbors and police that they heard someone with a shrill voice speaking in a foreign tongue immediately after the screaming ceased. Each of the witnesses concluded the voice to be that of a foreigner because they could not understand its words. Dupin suggests that, in fact, this was because they were not words at all. Another red herring lay in the iron chest which had been pulled from beneath the bed. We are expected to assume that it once contained something important that the murderer was willing to kill to obtain. In fact, however, they may not have contained anything significant at all.
What strikes Dupin immediately is that the crime seems inhuman, and he therefore considers the possibility that it hadn’t been committed by a human at all. Once this line of reasoning is opened, the clues all fall into place, and Dupin proves that the most brutal aspect of the crime -- the murders themselves -- were committed by an escaped orangutan (whose gibbering was mistaken for foreign speech), and the gruff voice belonged to the orangutan’s horrified owner, who arrived at the window too late to prevent the tragedy.
What is unique about Edgar Allan Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin is his tremendous reliance on instinct as opposed to unmitigated logic. He decries the purely analytical, the purely left-brained as opposed to the flowing, creative, intuitive right-brained thought that he feels constitutes true insight. In “Murders on the Rue Morgue,” Poe demonstrates how the combination of these faculties enable him to produce deductions from even the most shadowy clues.
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